Huskies ground Rockets in convincing fashion

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Jarrett Huff | Northern Star

Redshirt senior forward Lacey James attempts to finish an alley-oop Feb. 7 during NIU's game against Kent State University at the Convocation Center.

Mike Knapp, Senior Reporter

DeKALB — For most college students, spending some of their spring break in Cleveland wouldn’t be an appealing idea. There’s no place the men’s basketball team would rather be.

That’s where it’s headed March 12 for the Mid-American Conference tournament after taking down the University of Toledo 71-50 in the Huskies’ penultimate regular season game at the Convocation Center.

The victory clinches at least a share of the MAC West division title for NIU and gives the Huskies one of the four available first-round tournament byes.

NIU’s final seeding and potential opponent in Cleveland will be determined after Friday’s senior night game against Ball State University.

“I’ve been here four years, and I’ve never been on a team that’s so hungry,” senior guard Eugene German said. “It’s wonderful to be going to Cleveland. We’ve never clinched a bye and always had [first-round on-campus] play-in games; so this is amazing.”

After surrendering an average of 75 points in their previous three games, the Huskies returned to their smothering defensive ways.

The Rockets came to the Convocation Center averaging 75 points per game but managed just 17 first-half points on 6-for-27 shooting from the field.

Leading 33-17 at the break, the Huskies kept ramping up the defensive pressure, and saw their lead top out at 27 points after a German 3-pointer with under seven minutes remaining.

In the end, the Huskies held their opponent to 50 points or less for the third time this season..

“You can usually never tell how tight or loose your guys are before a game, but I could tell they were locked in,” Head Coach Mark Montgomery said. “Seeing all of the guys ‘on the string’ as we say — as five moving pieces going at the same time — and having each other’s back, you live for days like this. Our guys were in the moment, and that was great.”

The Huskies’ defense was solid on the interior and did a particularly good job on 6-foot-11 senior center Luke Knapke. Knapke, who came into the game averaging 16 points per contest and was coming off of a 31-point night Saturday against Ball State, was held to just five shots and one made field goal.

“He can score 30 against other teams, but we weren’t going to let him come in here and score 30 against us in our building,” redshirt senior forward Lacey James said. “We didn’t want to make it easy for him.”

James had 11 points and 11 rebounds to post his 10th career double-double and was one of four Huskies in double figures. For the 30th time this season, German led the Huskies in scoring — this time with a game-high 22 points. Sophomore guard Trendon Hankerson added 11, and first-year guard Tyler Cochran came off the bench to toss in 10.

“This was probably the best game we have played all season,” Montgomery said. “It couldn’t have come at a better time. We played good basketball for 40 minutes, and that was enjoyable to watch. Our guys earned this [bye]. We just want to bottle this up for Friday, and then continue to do it in Cleveland. That would give us a good chance to do something special.”

The Huskies still have some unfinished business in the form of Ball State, which handed NIU a 63-59 loss Feb. 11 in Muncie, Indiana. Tipoff with the Cardinals will be 7 p.m. Friday at the Convocation Center. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.