Kelly Smith, women’s basketball freshman forward, didn’t expect to play 36 minutes in her first collegiate game.
Smith scored a game-high 17 points in those 36 minutes as the Huskies (1-0) beat the Illinois State Redbirds (0-1), 55-51, Saturday at the Convocation Center.
“I think it went well. Yeah, it was really fun,” Smith said. “… All of my points were created by my teammates. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. We worked really well together to get each other open.”
The Huskies opened their season with a win for the first time since 2009. They improved to 1-4 in season openers and 4-1 in home openers under head coach Kathi Bennett.
Smith paced the Huskies with 17 points, shooting 6-14 from the field and 4-4 from the free-throw line; she added five rebounds and one steal. No freshman had scored at least 10 points or led the Huskies in scoring in the season opener since 2007-08.
The Huskies led 43-34 with 7:02 to play before a 6-0 spurt from the Redbirds cut NIU’s lead to 43-40 with 4:24 to play. Smith promptly drained a 3-pointer to stretch the Huskies’ lead to 46-40.
“She’s a natural scorer,” Bennett said. “She’s got a high release and [she] loves to compete, just plays fearlessly. That’s what I love the most.”
The Redbirds never tied the score or took the lead in the second half, getting as close as 47-46 with 3:19 to play. Back-to-back layups from redshirt senior Jenna Thorp and Smith and a pair of free throws from sophomore guard Ally Lehman put NIU up 53-46 with 1:05 to play.
After the Redbirds pulled within 53-51 with 0:40 remaining, Lehman sunk another pair of free throws with 0:13 left to put the finishing touches on the 55-51 win.
Thorp scored 13 points, pulled down six rebounds and registered three steals and one assist. Lehman posted 11 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out five assists and added two steals and one block.
Coupled with last season’s 57-52 win over the Redbirds, NIU has beaten Illinois State in back-to-back games for the first time in series history, which dates back to 1957-58.
With senior guard Amanda Corral sidelined until early December while recovering from surgery on her hand, the Huskies will need a team effort on both ends of the court. They struggled in their exhibition game against the Lewis Flyers, but Bennett said they applied what they learned against Lewis in their season opener.
“The Lewis game was really good for us,” Bennett said. “They’re a really good team, and we realized that when it gets tough is when we have to stay together no matter what’s going on. I think that message got across, and I think that’s what helped us win tonight because when they started making their runs — I guess you had to be in the time outs — but there was just some confidence there, there was faith in each other, and it felt good.”