Huskies face foul troubles in failed comeback

Huskies drop to 10th in Mid-American Conference standings as regular season winds down


Zulfiqar Ahmed

Akron sophomore wing Ali Ali (left) plays man defense against senior guard Anthony Crump during Tuesday night’s Mid-American Conference matchup at the Convocation center in DeKalb. Crump finished the game third in NIU scoring, recording 11 points in their 70-54 defeat at home. (Zulfiqar Ahmed | Northern Star)

DeKALB — Men’s basketball’s comeback attempt against the University of Akron fell short Tuesday night, losing a close ballgame 70-64 at the Convocation Center in DeKalb.

The Zips made it a priority to attack the paint early on with eight of the team’s first 10 points coming off layups. This offensive strategy caused NIU’s senior center Adong Makuoi to get in early foul trouble, having to be subbed out at the 18:35 mark with two personal fouls.

“I understood this game was gonna be won in the second half,” head coach Rashon Burno said. ”(Senior forward Chinedu Kingsley Okanu) gave us good minutes, so I feel like I didn’t have to chance it with Adong. Early foul trouble has plagued him all season and we gotta do a better job of sitting down guarding and not picking up silly fouls.”

Chasing leads early

The move allowed Zips sophomore forward Enrique Freeman to have a big first half, scoring 12 points and six rebounds to start.

Akron held a 10-5 lead at the beginning of the fifth minute before NIU scored on back-to-back fast break layups by freshman guard Zion Russell and sophomore guard Keshawn Williams, cutting the lead to two points.

They were 22-26 and we were 13-15. That’s the difference in the game.

— Head coach Rashon Burno

Akron played a tough defense causing multiple tipped passes, a shot clock violation, and a Williams airball. Akron’s defense helped them spark off a 9-2 run, giving them a 19-11 lead following a 3-pointer by freshman guard Garvin Clarke and a Freeman layup with 10:38 left in the half.

NIU responded with its own 8-2 run sparked by back-to-back 3-pointers by senior guard Trendon Hankerson and Williams respectively to cut the Zips lead back down to 21-19 with 8:50 in the half.

There was an offensive flurry from 4:30 to 2:19, a span of four made 3-point shots, two by each team.  The Huskies ended the half with a Kingsley Okanu layup to cut the lead to 35-33.

Huskies hold tight with Akron in second half

The second half was a lot like the first with plenty of back-and-forth play. The Zips were able to stretch the lead multiple times, but NIU kept fighting to keep it close. The Huskies used many second-half adjustments, particularly on the offensive end to put more of an emphasis on driving the ball.

“If you looked at the first half, almost half of our shots were threes,” Burno said. “I wanted to play inside out, whether it was dribble penetration or early post feeds to force the defense to converge and create an open shot.”

The Huskies came out more aggressive driving to the rim, even with the Zips having multiple defenders taller than 6’7’’. The aggression paid off as the Huskies were rewarded with more than double their free throw attempts in the second half. NIU was able to make nine second-half shots compared to the four made in the first.

As NIU got more calls, so did Akron, as the Zips shot 20 free throws in the second half alone.

“I thought we fouled way too much,” Burno said. They were 22-for-26 and we were 13-for-15. That’s the difference in the game.”

Zips seal victory from free throw line

Senior forward Chinedu Kingsley Okanu searches the court for an open teammate whilst being defended by Akron wing Ali Ali and freshman center Aziz Bandaogo during Sunday’s loss to the Zips in DeKalb. (Zulfiqar Ahmed)

The Zips’ clutch free throw shooting is what allowed them to close out the game, making six in the final 1:30 as NIU kept fighting. The Huskies were able to get within three points of the Zips following a Williams layup with 38 seconds remaining.

The referees then called senior guard Anthony Crump for a foul, sending the Zips junior guard Xavier Castaneda to the line to sink both free throws to ultimately ice the game.

“They made plays down the stretch,” Hankerson said. “They got to the line a lot and made their free throws, which was just a bonus for them.”

With the loss, the Huskies drop to 8-15 overall and 3-8 in the Mid-American Conference. The defeat also moves them to 10th in the MAC. Akron improves their record to 16-6 overall and 10-2 in the MAC, good for third place.

The Huskies will look to bounce back against the #1 ranked team in the MAC, the University of Toledo, at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the Convocation Center. The game will be available on ESPN3.