ROSEMONT – Comparing last season’s NIU team to this year’s squad was difficult for coach Mark Montgomery after the Huskies’ 70-65 loss to DePaul on Sunday because the two teams have little in common.
Early last season, the Huskies couldn’t have dreamed of hanging with the Big East team, and they didn’t in a 75-52 loss in mid-December, their ninth consecutive loss to start the season.
On Sunday, NIU (2-7) led, 56-54, with 4:20 remaining after Abdel Nader drained a three-pointer in his second game back from suspension before DePaul (8-3) finally took over.
“It’s a whole different team,” Montgomery said. “Our guys came out competing, playing hard. We had a chance to win this thing.”
Nader led NIU with 20 points, but his teammates had to pick up the slack in the first half when the sophomore picked up his second foul with 6:59 remaining.
The Huskies did fine without their leading scorer, swiping nine steals before the teams headed into the half tied, 31-31.
“We showed ourselves and we showed other people that this is not the same NIU team [as 2011],” freshman Akeem Springs said. “We expected to win this game. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, let’s go out and play hard.’ It was a game where we expected to win.”
Last year, NIU kept its game against DePaul tight for most of the first half, but the Blue Demons pulled away.
Not this time.
DePaul started the second half with a 6-0 run, but the Huskies withstood the charge. After the Blue Demons led by seven with 15:09 remaining, Nader scored eight points in a four-minute span to help give the Huskies a 47-45 lead with 9:45 remaining.
“We definitely have shown that we can overcome some adversity and keep charging and keep plugging,” Montgomery said. “That’s what I kind of like about this team, they’re not going to give up.”
After DePaul took a 51-49 lead, Nader went on a 7-3 run of his own to give put the Huskies ahead, 56-54, with 4:20 left. DePaul guard Jamee Crockett answered with a three-pointer and the Huskies wouldn’t lead again. Turnovers and missed shots sunk the Huskies into a five-point deficit with one minute remaining.
Springs hit two three-pointers to give NIU a chance to tie with six seconds left, but Nader’s fall-away three-pointer ended the Huskies’ chances.
“There were just some key plays that we didn’t execute,” Nader said.
The Huskies didn’t hang their heads. Unlike last season, hopes of a win proved to be realistic.
Given more time, the Huskies think they’ll be able to turn tight games, like their four losses by single digits, into wins.
“It’s definitely a whole different mentality,” Nader said. “We’re playing a lot smarter, we’re taking care of the ball, our turnovers were a lot less. Every game we’ve played has been a winnable game.”