Huskies remain perfect in conference play

By Khobi Price

DeKALB—The men’s basketball team’s 73-56 Mid-American Conference home-opening win against the Akron Zips Saturday in the Convocation Center was a tale of two halves.

On the backs of junior guard Eugene German’s 20 second-half points, a 70 percent shooting clip in the second half and what Head Coach Mark Montgomery said was probably the team’s best defensive half of the season, NIU outscored the Zips 48-22 in the final 20 minutes of the game to take its third consecutive MAC victory.

The Huskies trailed 34-25 at halftime after allowing the Zips to hit 48 percent of their field goal attempts in the opening 20 minutes of the contest.

Akron senior forward Daniel Utomi and senior guard Jimond Ivey, the Zips’ top two leading scorers, combined for 14 points and made five of Akron’s 12 first-half field goals.

The Huskies’ offense stalled during the final 11 minutes of the opening half after shooting 66 percent from the field to start the game. NIU shot 2-11 from the field for the remainder of the half after Thorpe’s lay-up tied the contest at 19 with 9:11 left in the half.

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The Zips scored 12 unanswered points to go up 31-19. The Huskies made two of their final four field goal attempts in the half to bring their deficit to 34-25 as they headed into the game’s midway break.

NIU shot 39 percent from the field and 18 percent from beyond the arc, while turning the ball over nine times in the opening half. The Huskies credited Akron’s 1-3-1 defense for the team’s lackluster early offensive showing.

“We had a problem with their 1-3-1,” German said. “We were basically trying to talk about how we were going to attack the gaps and get other people shots.”

Montgomery said German, who finished with a team-high 27 points, seven rebounds and three assists on 11-17 shooting from the field, took it upon himself to be more aggressive in attacking the Zips’ zone defense in the second half.

“I think their change in defenses threw us off,” Montgomery said. “It seemed like we were a step slow.”

German opened the second half with back-to-back baskets in the paint. He scored seven of the Huskies’ first nine points in the opening three-and-a-half minutes after intermission to reduce Akron’s lead to 36-34.

“[Montgomery] was kind of getting on me because I guess it starts with me,” German said. “I guess I was in my feelings. I just wanted to come out and ignite our team, and that’s when everyone started going.”

German’s 3-pointer with 13:04 left in the game sparked a 16-0 NIU run, spanning over five minutes.

Senior guard Dante Thorpe and sophomore guard Gairges Daow fed off German’s early scoring punch the most. Thorpe scored five points and Daow scored four during the Huskies’ run, putting NIU up 56-44 with 7:43 left in the contest.

Thorpe finished the game with 15 points on 7-9 shooting; Ivey was Thorpe’s defensive assignment and Thorpe limited him to three points on 1-4 shooting in the second half. Senior forward Levi Bradley held Utomi scoreless on 0-6, shooting in the final 20 minutes.

“You don’t really have to challenge Thorpe; I think he’s one of the best defenders in the league,” Montgomery said. “We had to challenge Bradley on Utomi. He’s a four-man who was scoring the most points, so [Bradley] had to challenge himself to go out there and guard him, and I thought he did an exceptional job doing that.”

NIU’s lead ballooned to 71-49 with 2:33 left in the game after a senior forward Lacey James lay-up. Daow finished with seven points, three assists and a team-high 10 rebounds in 25 minutes of play, his most since NIU’s Nov. 24 match against James Madison University.

“[Daow] was knocking down that corner shot, but his defense, his rebounding and his aggressiveness are why he started 15 plus games,” Montgomery said. “Ten rebounds is unbelievable, but his length, size and toughness today were big factors; that’s why he played extended minutes.”

NIU has started MAC play 3-0 for the second time during Montgomery’s tenure as head coach began in 2011. The Huskies opened the 2015-16 season with three consecutive MAC wins before losing to the Western Michigan Broncos 83-69 Jan. 16, 2016.

NIU will look to defend its perfect conference record when it faces off against the Central Michigan Chippewas 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Convocation Center.