Huskies win MAC opener

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Michigan State forward Nick Ward (44) and Northern Illinois forward Lacey James (4) fight for the rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

James Krause

The men’s basketball team came from behind to win their Mid-American Conference opener Saturday against the Ohio Bobcats in overtime 72-66.

After being down 13 at halftime, the Huskies came back to force overtime. Senior forward Lacey James scored eight of the Huskies’ 12 points in overtime to help seal the win.

James registered his third double-double of the season finishing with 20 points and 14 rebounds, both career highs.

Coach Mark Montgomery said team trust and the performance of their low-post players helped pull the team out of the deficit.

“We have to keep trust in our defense, that is going to create some offense and get some fast break points,” Montgomery said. “We’re going to punch the ball inside and keep playing inside out. We did get some things in transition and that’s when Lacey James kind of took over.”

NIU went 13-for-17 from the free throw line, while Ohio went 11-for-25 on foul shots. Coach Montgomery said he’s warned his team of the importance of free throws, especially visiting a team that was undefeated at home this season.

“I tell my team at least six or seven games are going to come down to free throws and we did a better job today,” Montgomery said. “Leading up before MAC play, our guys made 100 [free throws] a day. We put emphasis on free throws and especially on the road.”

Bobcats’ sophomore guard Teyvion Kirk finished with a game-high 22 points along with nine rebounds.

Ohio’s first-year guard Jason Preston got the Bobcats ahead early with the team’s first seven points.

Related: Huskies fall short to the Spartans

 NIU struggled to keep up with a 1-for-11 shooting effort to start the game. The bad shooting put the Huskies down by as many as 14 in the first half before the team finally got the offense rolling.

A pair of 3-pointers from junior guard German and first-year guard Trendon Hankerson helped the Huskies keep up, shrinking Ohio’s lead to 26-21 with 2:20 left in the half.

Hankerson, in his collegiate debut, played 26 minutes off the bench and finished with nine points, four rebounds and three steals. Coach Montgomery said Hankerson displayed confidence that has been built with dedication in practice.

“He’s been practicing well in practice,” Montgomery said. “He’s been playing on the scout team, getting reps, still coming in to shoot. I thought he played with a great amount of confidence and the guys trusted him. He made some big time shots to get us back in the game.”

Ohio still outrebounded and outshot NIU by a wide margin in the first half, ultimately leading at the half 34-21. The Huskies shot 26.9 percent from the field, while being outrebounded 21-10.

Related: Q & A with Coach Montgomery

Halftime adjustments garnered immediate results for NIU. The Huskies opened up the second half with a 15-3 run.

Scoring from James and German helped pull the Huskies out of the hole, with free throws from Bradley finally giving NIU a 38-37 lead with 12:40 remaining.

The Bobcats eventually ended a six minute scoreless drought with a pair of free throws from junior guard Antonio Cowart Jr. The free throws gave Ohio the lead back at 39-38.

The Huskies started to push the ball inside to senior forward Noah McCarty, scoring four of NIU’s 30 points in the paint to give NIU a 42-41 lead with 10:42 remaining.

Both teams were separated by two points or less from 13:19 left in the second half until a pair of German 3-pointers put the Huskies up 56-52 with 2:44 left. German ended the night with 16 points.

NIU led 60-57 when a 3-pointer from Ohio freshman guard Ben Vander Plas tied the game at 60-60 with 8.9 seconds remaining.

A foul on the shot sent Vander Plas to the free throw line for a potential four point play, but a miss at the charity stripe sent the game to overtime.

A layup by James to open the period and a Hankerson three-pointer were the only field goals NIU needed in the period to hold off the Bobcats.

NIU scored most of their points in overtime on free throws shooting 7-10, while the Bobcats struggled going 0-5.

The win put the Huskies at 8-6 overall, the same record they had after 14 games last season. Ohio’s first home loss puts their record at 8-5.

NIU will finish their road tour of the Buckeye State with a game against the Miami of Ohio RedHawks at 6 p.m on Tuesday.