DeKALB – For a moment, Antone Christian thought a higher power might pull his desperation, half-court heave into the hoop.
He knew odds wouldn’t help him. After catching freshman Abdel Nader’s outlet pass with about four seconds left and a full court to dribble, all Christian could think about was getting a good look at the basket. He ended up with a running, 45-footer at the buzzer, a less than desirable option.
But he hoped.
“To be honest, I prayed it in,” Christian said. “I just hoped a blessing would come out of the sky for us for us to win, because we deserved it in the second half.”
“I was praying to the basketball gods, too,” coach Mark Montgomery admitted.
But the odds won, the basketball smacking off the backboard just after the buzzer, handing Northern Illinois a 59-57 loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2-0) in front of 1,025 fans in Montgomery’s regular-season home opener. The loss dropped NIU to 0-2 on the season, but was a significant improvement from its 62-point, season-opening defeat Friday at Purdue.
The Huskies had 16 turnovers and 23 points in the opening 20 minutes. But, as sloppy as it was, Milwaukee failed to put the game out of reach, only leading by 13.
“I thought we could [make a second-half run], and looking in the guys’ eyes, they thought we could,” Montgomery said. “Because they obviously came out and did it. We were shooting ourselves in the foot, and Milwaukee came out and hit a couple threes versus our zone.
“So I felt confident we were going to fight back in the game and get back in it, and in the second half we did that.”
NIU used a 17-4 run to take its first lead since the game’s opening minute at 40-39 with 11:01 left. During the run, Montgomery shed his suit jacket for the first time this season. Sensing the momentum shift, he got down in a crouch, lecturing his style of play.
Montgomery said the biggest second-half improvement was limiting turnovers to just seven. But the Huskies’ perimeter defense also tightened up, holding Milwaukee to just 6 of 30 three-point shooting a game after letting Purdue shoot 50 percent (14 of 28) from behind the arc.
Milwaukee senior Kaylon Williams, who finished with eight points on 3 of 11 shooting, said he felt like NIU’s defense still allowed open looks. His coach, Rob Jeter, disagreed.
“If you ask a player, they’re always open,” Jeter said. “They catch the ball, they think they’re open. They walk into the gym, they think they’re open.
“As a coach, I thought we were real choppy. They did a nice job of taking away gaps. We were trying to get it into the interior defense, but it seemed to be choppy. That had to do with their defense.”
The bottom-line was a loss that left nobody satisfied. But, to compete against a team that twice beat national runner-up Butler last season, forward Tim Toler said Monday felt different.
“The first half, it kind of seemed like we were still kind of in a daze from that Purdue game, as far as turning the ball over and just being kind of careless,” Toler said. “But we came in at halftime, and coach was just making sure that we were still on the same page. We tried to make it a priority to come out in the second half and just give it our 100-percent effort, and I hope the fans saw that.
“We’re going to continue to produce that kind of effort out there.”