DeKALB – After a less-than-inspiring 27-point first half performance against Eastern Michigan Saturday afternoon, Northern Illinois stormed back in the second half for a 72-66 comeback win at the Convocation Center.
The victory marked NIU’s first win of the season when trailing at halftime – the Eagles carried a 33-27 advantage into the half, but the Huskies (9-8, 2-2 Mid-American Conference) pounced on momentum with a 24-10 run to start the second half and never gave up the lead.
Sophomore Eugene German scored 10 of his game-high 26 points during that run. German converted 9 of 16 field goals and shot 5 of 10 from three.
NIU coach Mark Montgomery said the difference between the first and second half was NIU’s concentration against Eastern Michigan’s scrappy zone defense.
“We had to get a feel for (Eastern Michigan’s zone),” Montgomery said. “We don’t have the length in practice where we can go against a 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9 front line. Once our guys got more comfortable, we started getting the ball more in the middle. Everyone in our league plays man-to-man except Eastern Michigan.
“We try to tell guys to have some patience and poise, but understand there’s going to be ugly possessions where you just have to survive. We tried to attack that zone inside-out.”
Midway through the second half, the crowd at the Convocation Center rose to its feet in unison when Justin Thomas provided what Montgomery called the “play of the game.” After converting his own lay-up, Thomas made a sneaky steal off an Eastern Michigan in-bound and assisted Levi Bradley for another lay-in plus the shooting foul to extend NIU's lead to nine points.
“Everyday I come in and always stay ready. I’m always getting extra reps up and trying to stay ready.” said Thomas who made five of eight baskets. “It just all came second nature tonight.”
Montgomery praised Dante Thorpe’s play against the Eagles. Thorpe finished with only five points and three rebounds, but contributed a career-best six assists.
“Dante Thorpe plays very unselfish,” Montgomery said. “He’s going to make the right play. That’s just part of his game. He wants to get to the basket, shoot floaters and runners – that’s harder against Eastern Michigan. So he facilitated. When you have to pass against that zone, you have to be courageous. …That was great.”
Eastern Michigan’s starting lineup boasted a near-four-inch advantage in average height compared to NIU’s starting five. The height differential, however, didn’t deter the Huskies as they out-rebounded the Eagles 35-33 and finished with 13 offensive boards compared to Eastern Michigan’s nine.
Lacey James grabbed a team-high eight rebounds and scored nine points.
“We came out of the second half with more energy and rebounded better,” German said. “We defended. It was a big team effort tonight.”
The Huskies are hoping to notch their second-straight conference win when they travel to Buffalo at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The Bulls (12-5, 4-0) are off to their best start in league play and hold a 7-1 record at home.
Montgomery said, “The MAC did us no favors where we’re on the road for six of nine. We have to win our home games. We did that. Now we have to find a way to steal one next week on the road.”