DeKALB — In its run-up to a share of the Mid-American Conference West division title and a top four seeding in next week’s MAC Tournament, it had been a while since the men’s basketball team had a night where everything went wrong.
That caught up to them Friday night at the Convocation Center when the Huskies squared up with the Ball State University Cardinals in the regular-season finale for both teams. The regular-season and Senior Night landed with a thud for the Huskies, as the Cardinals dominated from the beginning and rolled to a 75-51 win.
It was the second time the Huskies have lost to Ball State this season, and the Cardinals handed them their worst loss since a 72-49 beatdown by the University of Akron Zips on Jan. 14.
“I feel like we were a little relaxed,” senior guard Eugene German said. “They wanted it a lot more than we did. We couldn’t find a rhythm.”
Ball State got off the bus ready to go, opening up a 24-7 lead with just over six minutes left in the first half, and settling into the break with a 36-24 lead. The Cardinals shot a sizzling 59% from the field and 55% from behind the 3-point arc in the first half.
Meanwhile, nothing fell for the Huskies. BSU’s man-to-man defense was stifling in the first half as the Huskies made just eight of their 34 shots in the first 20 minutes At one point NIU was just 3-for-22 from the field.
“They came out and just punched us in the face,” Head Coach Mark Montgomery said. “It seemed like we couldn’t get anything going offensively, and our defense didn’t wake up until the second half. It was an uphill battle all night.”
The Huskies woke up a little bit to start the second half, opening with a 12-4 run to make it a 40-36 game with just over 15 minutes to go. Sophomore guard Trendon Hankerson was the spark to that run, converting on an old-fashioned 3-point play just before the first media timeout of the half, then drilled a trey from long range out of the break to make it a four-point contest.
Ball State took care of that run really quickly, though, responding with an 11-0 run over the next four minutes to take the lead back to 14, then stretched the lead out to as high as 29, 75-46, on two free throws from redshirt senior Tahjai Teague.
Despite missing time in the second half due to foul trouble, Teague, the cousin of current Atlanta Hawk Jeff Teague and NBA G-League player Marquis Teague, finished the night with game-highs of 18 points and 11 rebounds.
German once again led the Huskies in scoring with 17 points, while Hankerson finished with 12. Redshirt senior forward Lacey James scored six points for NIU, while fellow senior forward Noah McCarty had a team-high six rebounds in the final home game of their careers.
“It’s disappointing, you never want to lose on Senior Night,” McCarty said. “You don’t want to lose a game, period, but we have a bigger goal in the end. If we cut down the nets in Cleveland, this game won’t matter.”
An ending of one thing is the beginning of another, and for the Huskies the end of the regular season brings a spring break trip to Cleveland for the MAC Tournament. With a bye through the first round, NIU will have time to rest and prepare for its opponent, which will be the winner of the University at Buffalo and University of Miami–Ohio game that will be played Monday night in Buffalo.
Montgomery, who played in seven NCAA tournament games as a player at Michigan State University, then was a coach for 29 more games sitting next to Tom Izzo as an assistant at MSU, is excited for the opportunity to keep playing more games in March.
“The good news is the MAC Championship starts next Thursday, and we will be ready to play,” Montgomery said. “All week we will be watching conference championship games because March basketball has already started. It’s not going to take much to get our guys fired up and excited. They have dreamed of these opportunities. Every player lives for March from the time you start following basketball. It’s going to be an exciting time.”
NIU will play the second game of Thursday’s afternoon session at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Its game will tip-off 30 minutes after the conclusion of the game between Akron and the winner of Monday’s game between Ohio University and Central Michigan University, which starts at noon. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.