DeKALB — Close finishes are starting to become a trend for the men’s basketball team.
The Huskies’ past three games were all decided by a single point, with NIU going 1-2 in those contests, and Saturday’s game with Eastern Michigan University went down to the wire as well.
Playing their first Mid-American Conference home game, the Huskies held off a furious rally from EMU in the final two minutes, escaping with the 71-68 win at the Convocation Center.
“The good news is that we closed it out and won the game,” Head Coach Mark Montgomery said. “We did a lot of things at a high level, we just need to learn how to close teams out in the final four minutes of the game. That’s a work in progress.”
For the first 38 minutes, it appeared the Huskies were going to have a game with a little breathing room. A 13-2 run to close out the first half gave the Huskies a 32-24 lead at the break, and a 15-5 burst to start the second half put NIU up by 18 with under 15 minutes to go.
The lead was still 16 with 2:05 to play after a jumper from sophomore Trendon Hankerson made it a 65-49 game. The Eagles came back with a flurry of points, outscoring NIU 17-3 over the next 1:42, cutting the lead to a single point at 67-66 on a jumper from sophomore guard Yeikson Montero with 23 seconds to go.
Junior guard Rod Henry-Hayes made two free throws for NIU to make it a three-point game. EMU had a shot to tie the game when Huskie redshirt junior guard Ty Groce teed up a 3-pointer from the left corner with 12 seconds to play. After Groce’s shot missed, Henry-Hayes was fouled after grabbing the rebound and went to the other end to calmly can two more free throws, icing it for the Huskies.
“This is basketball,” Montgomery said. “In basketball you have to play 40 minutes. The ball takes funny bounces — they had some balls that bounced their way in the last four minutes.”
Henry-Hayes came off the bench to score seven points in 13 minutes, one of five Huskies to score seven or more points. EMU’s extended zone defense held senior guard Eugene German to 12 shots and 17 points, but senior forward Noah McCarty stepped up with a career-high 14 points.
McCarty tied German and redshirt senior forward Lacey James for team-high honors in rebounds with seven.
“[German] is going to do what he does; he’s going to put the ball in the hoop,” McCarty said. “Then we know it comes back to us. We know there is a lot of talent on this team. [James] can go for 15 a night; I know I can score the ball. On any given night anybody can come out and give us 12 to13 points and give us a boost. It’s just whoever is feeling it that night.”
German’s 17 points move him to within exactly 100 points of T.J. Lux’s school-record of 1,996 career points. German has led the Huskies in scoring in all 16 games this season, and he leads the MAC in scoring at 20.4 points per game.
The Huskies continue league play 7 p.m. Tuesday when they meet the University of Akron at the Convocation Center.