Men’s basketball knocks off MAC West’s best in home game

Redshirt junior center Pete Rakocevic cheers as the Huskies (13-14, 7-8 MAC) head toward an upset victory over the Toledo Rockets (23-5, 11-4 MAC), 74-66, last season in the Convocation Center. The crowd rushed the court following the win.

By Steve Shonder

Men’s basketball’s upset bid of the MAC’s best in the West ended with a court rush.

The Huskies (13-14, 7-8 MAC) knocked off the Toledo Rockets (23-5, 11-4 MAC), 74-66, Wednesday at the Convocation Center. Coming into the game, Toledo was on a two-game winning streak and was headed for the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

NIU had four players reach double digits in scoring. The attack kept the Rockets off balance for much of the game, allowing the Huskies to stay in during a back-and-forth first half.

“I’m very proud of the heart and toughness they showed,” said head coach Mark Montgomery. “[It was a] big time team win. Hopefully this will give us momentum as we head to Eastern Michigan, then to Western [Michigan] and then Ball State.”

Neither team could get much going in the early minutes of the game. In the first half, there were nine lead changes. The Huskies had some trouble holding onto the ball — allowing Toledo to score 18 points off turnovers — but they somehow managed to end the half facing only a one-point deficit. NIU had 10 first-half turnovers.

Free-throw shooting, which has been a problem in the past, wasn’t one Wednesday. NIU went 25-30 from the line, including going 8-11 in the last two minutes of the game. Its last 13 points of the game came from the charity stripe.

There would only be one lead change the remainder of the game: The Huskies took the lead from an Aksel Bolin 3-pointer with 18:52 remaining the second half and never looked back.

Rian Pearson of Toledo, who finished with 27 points, kept Toledo in the game for much of the second half, but nothing he could do would generate enough offense to overtake the Huskies’ lead. Pearson had 16 second-half points.

While Toledo was a threat throughout the half, the defense continuously made big stops.

“We just dug down and really wanted to get that stop,” said junior center Jordan Threloff. “We had a couple possessions where we got them three or four stops in a row. We held them to 34 percent shooting in the second half, and we were able to get rebounds.”

The Huskies outrebounded the Rockets, 40-29, which killed many of the Rockets’ scoring chances and kept NIU in the lead.

The Huskies were led by Threloff, who led the team in rebounding with nine and added 13 points. Travon Baker led the Huskies’ scoring effort with 17 points, while Bolin finished with 11 and Aaron Armstead contributed 11.

“We said we were looking for that signature win against one of those teams in the top four,” Montgomery said. “This was our chance to get it. We’ve been awfully close all year. It’s definitely a confidence booster to being able to close it out and finish.”