EIU upstages NIU’s comeback

By Wes Swietek

It seemed that everything was going right for a dramatic come-from-behind win for the NIU men’s basketball team Saturday—until the final seconds.

With 4.3 seconds showing on the Chick Evans Field House scoreboard, Eastern Illinois’ Curtis Leib scored his only points of the second half on a 6-foot turnaround jumper. The basket gave the Panthers a 63-61 lead, and when Brian Molis’ desperation full-court pass was stolen by Barry Johnson, it gave Eastern the Mid-Continent Conference win.

Johnson was fouled and sank two free throws with no time on the clock to provide the final 65-61 margin. The win puts Eastern at 13-11 overall, 8-6 and a share of fourth place in the Mid-Con. NIU falls to 10-15 overall and, at 7-8, in sole possession of 6th in the league.

Up until the four second mark, everything was going right for an NIU comeback. After trailing by four at halftime, and by as many as 13 in the second half, the Huskies were sparked by an unlikely source.

Freshman Marlin Simms, who has averaged only three points in NIU’s last six games, buried a three-pointer with 2:47 left to bring his team within 60-55. A minute later, Simms canned another three to make it 60-58. Meanwhile, usually reliable Eastern senior guard Steve Rowe missed four straight free throws in the final two minutes.

Brian Molis hit two free throws to tie it at 61 with 41 seconds left before Leib scored the game winner.

“We made a good comeback down the stretch, unfortunately it wasn’t enough. They did a good job getting it inside to Leib,” NIU head coach Brian Hammel said.

Eastern head coach Rick Samuels, however, said that the pick and roll that found the 6-7 Leib guarded by 6-0 Vaurice Patterson wasn’t the Panthers’ intended play.

“Our original play broke down, but we didn’t panic. (Senior guard Kavien Martin) showed great poise at the end of the game,” Samuels said. Martin forced the defensive switch off a drive to set up Eastern’s game-winning play.

Despite the comeback, Hammel wasn’t satisfied with his team’s performance. “For 30 of the 40 minutes we were stuck in neutral—we were fat, physically and mentally.

“We just weren’t crisp in anything we did. It was one of those games where we just didn’t have it,” Hammel said. “We need to shoot the basketball well every game,” he said after watching his team shoot 40 percent Saturday. “We need to (shoot) 45 percent or over.”

Huskie center Steve Oldendorf was cut over his left eye in the first half, an injury that required seven stitches. But Oldendorf came back to see action in the second half.

Heading into the M-C tournament, March 8-10 at Cleveland, NIU faces its final conference match tonight at Wright State (14-11, 8-6) at 7:35 p.m.

Tonight’s match will go a long way in determining NIU’s seed in the tourney.

(Wright State) is starting to come on strong—(forward Bill) Edwards is as good as anyone in the Midwest,” Hammel said. “They’ll present a difficult situation for us.”

NIU closes out its regular season with a non-conference home game against Texas Tech, Saturday at 2:05 p.m. It will be Senior Recognition Night.