Basketball retains first place in MAC


Senior guard Dontel Highsmith drives to the hoop in a Nov. 16 game against Idaho University. Highsmith finished Saturday’s game with 12 points and 71 percent shooting. 

By Krystal Ward

NIU 74, Toledo 72

DeKALB — Men’s basketball (13-8, 5-3 Mid-American Conference) maintained its first place in the MAC West Division after the team won a thrilling game against the University of Toledo Rockets (11-10, 4-4 MAC), 74-72, Saturday in Toledo, Ohio. Four teams were tied, 4-3, for first place in the MAC West going into Saturday.

The Huskies take on the University of Akron Zips (18-3, 8-0) 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Convocation Center. The Zips rank first in the MAC with an undefeated conference record and an 11-game winning streak.

The Huskies trail the all-time series against the Zips, 11-23. The two teams split their matchups last season, with Akron winning the first meeting, 76-66, on Jan. 26, 2016 and NIU winning the second game, 80-79, on Feb. 13.

University of Toledo

Sophomore guard Laytwan Porter hit a crucial 3-pointer which gave NIU a 73-69 lead with 25 seconds left in the game. Six seconds later, Toledo sophomore guard Jaelan Sanford carried the ball into Toledo’s end of the court and hit a 3-point shot of his own to make it a one-point game, 73-72. Porter sank a free throw after a Toledo foul to give the Huskies a 74-72 lead with 13 seconds left. Sanford was fouled but missed his first free throw with five seconds left and NIU held on for the victory after a block by senior guard Aaric Armstead on Toledo’s next possession.

The Huskies, second in the MAC in offensive rebounds, out-rebounded the Rockets 12-2 on the offensive glass which led to a 10-1 advantage in second chance points.

Five Huskies scored in double-figures and were led by senior center Marin Maric’s 15 points on 39 percent shooting (5-for-13) and nine rebounds. Maric was followed by Porter, who shot 3-for-4 on triples and scored 12 points. Armstead and senior guard Dontel Highsmith scored 12 points apiece. Highsmith shot 71 percent (5-for-7) from the field while Armstead shot 67 percent (4-for-6). Sophomore wing Levi Bradley chipped in 10 points on 40 percent shooting (4-for-10).

NIU shot 48 percent (28-for-58) for the game, including 50 percent (7-for-14) on threes. The Huskies bench outscored Toledo’s 29-3. NIU also had 10 steals to the Rockets’ five.

It was a back-and-forth battle in the first half with Toledo taking a 17-11 lead with 12 minutes to play. The Huskies went on a 10-3 run with three minutes left in the first half and took a 40-37 lead at halftime.

NIU took a 49-40 lead five minutes into the second half. Back-to-back buckets from Armstead with a little over a minute left in regulation gave NIU a 70-66 lead.

With 41 seconds left, NIU’s lead was down to two points but the team held on for the win.

Akron University

NIU will face one of the top offensive teams in the conference for the second consecutive game. Akron ranks at or near the top of most offensive categories in the MAC, including scoring offense (80.1), scoring margin (+7.4 points per game), field goal percentage (49 percent), three-point field goal percentage (39 percent), assists (16) and assist to turnover ratio (1.4).

NIU hit 3-pointers when it needed to against Toledo and will need to do the same against Akron. The Huskies are second in the MAC in offensive rebounds (14), which should give them an advantage in second chance points. NIU is also third in the conference in steals (8), but Akron does not turn the ball over much. However, Toledo typically takes care of the ball, but NIU was able to force 16 turnovers against them, including four in the opening five minutes.

The Zips have finished with the best record in the conference in three of the last five seasons. If the Huskies can hit their shots like they did against Toledo and play their usual defense, the scores should be close.