Wildcats nip Huskies at home in men’s basketball opener, 97-78

Freshman Nate Rucker (right) goes up to score in Saturday’s exhibition victory.

By Chris Dertz

NIU men’s basketball team faced a tough test in its season opener Friday night, as the Huskies hosted Northwestern for a rematch of last year’s opener.

While the Huskies got to play the Wildcats at home this time, in front of 4,001 fans, the result was eerily similar to last year’s, as NIU was dropped 97-78.

The crowd was the largest at the Convocation Center sine a 2005 matchup against Kansas State.

Despite trailing by only five at the half, the Huskies (0-1) fell behind thanks to a 25-point second half output from Wildcat (1-0) guard John Shurna, who shot 7-for-8 from beyond the arc in the period.

Shurna scored 31 points total. NIU guard Xavier Silas led the Huskies with 25 of his own on 6-for-15 shooting.

“I think we had a great test here tonight,” said NIU head coach Ricardo Patton. “Probably too tough of a test for the first game out, but I thought our guys showed some flashes, some signs of being a good basketball team.”

Despite Shurna’s second-half output, NIU was no slouch offensively, shooting 52 percent from the field.

The Wildcats’ size, however, allowed their guards to shoot over the perimeter defenders of NIU, and also forced many Huskie turnovers after Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody made the switch to a 1-3-1 zone.

“Our guys hadn’t faced the length of their 1-3-1, and made some careless mistakes,” Patton said. “If we don’t give them 20 more possessions, if we can shore up that area, we’ll be fine.”

Northwestern had 70 field-goal attempts, 20 more than NIU’s 50.

It wasn’t just the product of turnovers, however, as the Huskies allowed the Wildcats to pull down 16 offensive rebounds, eight in each half.

It was the tenacity of Northwestern’s offense, especially its ball movement, that was the difference.

The Wildcats poured in 35 buckets, and were deadly from three-point land, shooting 15-for-33 from beyond the arc. NIU had a tough time dealing with the length of Northwestern’s guards, but also struggled to get out on perimeter shooters to contest from the Huskies’ 2-3 zone that they played the majority of the game.

“We would have kept the foot on the pedal whether they were making or missing,” said Wildcat guard Drew Crawford, who scored 20. “That’s one thing we do is to maintain consistency; keep playing hard no matter what the score is.”

There was some promise from the many newcomers to the Huskie lineup, though. Freshman forward Nate Rucker shot a perfect 4-for-4 from the field, and put in 11 points with six boards on the night. Junior transfer Tim Toler put in 12 points of his own.

Rucker and Toler, along with Silas, were the only Huskie players who scored in double digits on the night.

“It was a scary first game, we came out and we weren’t able to stop them,” Carmody said. “Second half, we came out and made some shots, and that sort of opened it up and it stayed that way pretty much.”

NIU will be on the road for its next matchup against Bradley University on Tuesday night.