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NIU football team honored at halftime pep rally

DeKALB — When Northern Illinois’ Orange Bowl bid became official Sunday night, Sean Evans had to turn his phone off.

The junior cornerback, who hails from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., kept getting a flurry of phone calls, texts and emails. Eventually, he just had to click the “off” button.

Three days after it was announced the Huskies were making their first BCS appearance, the attention hasn’t stopped.

Wednesday evening, the team was honored at a pep rally during the NIU men’s basketball team’s 65-54 win over SIU-Edwardsville.

The game was just one more stop on the ride the Huskies’ Mid-American Conference championship football team has experienced since Sunday’s announcement.

“It’s like a dream. It’s like a daze I’ve still been in, can’t really believe it,” Evans said during halftime of the Huskies’ victory. “It’s all been pretty surreal.”

NIU’s Orange Bowl experience also means the Huskies are in the Chicago – and national – media spotlight. Something the players certainly have learned these past few days.

“Busy, busy busy. News reporters being here every day, have to give interviews,” junior safety Jimmie Ward said. “It’s a fun experience. Something new.”

Each player gets six tickets to give to family or friends. Evans said he’s up to about 30 names who want tickets. He’s also got a Florida State connection, as both his father and aunt are FSU alums.

“I never really thought I would have the chance to play at the collegiate level in my home state. The biggest stage, the biggest game of my life,” Evans said. “It’s like a dream come true to come back home in front of friends and family, and play against a team that I grew up watching in my home state.”

Wednesday, the NIU basketball team got its first win over a Division I team, improving to 2-5 playing in an atmosphere its not used to. The lower bowl of the NIU Convocation Center was mostly full, and students actually showed up to fill the student section, at least for the first half. The 2,750 fans who showed up equaled NIU’s largest crowd of the season.

NIU head coach Mark Montgomery even coached the win over the Cougars (2-4) with an orange tie.

“I’ll have to wear my lucky orange tie for maybe the rest of the month before we play in that Orange Bowl game,” Montgomery joked after the game.

Playing in front of a big crowd, NIU used the atmosphere to its advantage.

“I think the whole team fed off the crowd,” said freshman forward Sam Mader, who had 11 points for the Huskes. “We knew that we had to start off strong if we wanted to win, so we all fed off the crowd.”

Aksel Bolin led NIU with 15 points, and freshman point guard Travon Baker added 10.

After the win, Montgomery said he hopes to have junior guard Antone Christian (leg injury) back next week, while he hopes suspended forward Abdel Nader will be back before Christmas.

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