DeKALB – Dontel Highsmith, dressed in Northern Illinois’ official black warmups, watched from the bench for the entirety of the Huskies’ 65-51 victory over Bethune-Cookman.
The torn ACL Highsmith suffered with only a few minutes remaining Tuesday against Iowa State was a tough blow for the talented freshman who was recently named the Mid-American Conference West Division Player of the Week and scored a combined 46 points during the Huskies’ past two games.
It’s an even more unfortunate loss for an NIU team that is now 6-6, has won three of its past four games and has already accumulated more wins than in each of the previous two seasons under coach Mark Montgomery.
While the wins don’t exactly read like a who’s who of basketball powerhouses – San Jose St., St. Joseph’s (Ind.), Dartmouth, Loyola, UC Riverside and now Bethune-Cookman – don’t discount the six victories automatically. Two of those wins came on the road and the same Dartmouth team that the Huskies beat by seven in early December traveled down to Champaign and only lost by the same margin to Illinois five days later.
“It means a lot, it gives us confidence, especially with conference play about to start,” NIU sophomore wing Darrell Bowie said. “It gives us a lot of confidence and to keep on building that we can play with the top elite guys.”
For NIU, there likely won’t be an NCAA tournament or even NIT bid this year. Probably not even next season. But there already is tangible improvement and, despite Highsmith’s injury, that’s reason enough to pay attention to a team that rarely gets any acclaim.
Highsmith will have surgery in two to three weeks and the likelihood of a medical redshirt is slim at best. His offensive abilities will certainly be missed, but NIU has hung its hat on its defensive prowess.
“He started six or seven straight games, you kind of start getting comfortable,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “You don’t want any player to miss games … Other guys have stepped up, that’s the attitude you have to have, next guy standing.”
The non-conference portion of the schedule is now finished and we’ll get a better indication of where the Huskies are at when they travel to Buffalo on Wednesday for their MAC opener.
The end of football season and beginning of frigid temperatures shouldn’t signify a hibernation period for NIU fans. Instead, the focus should now be on a team that has lingered in the shadows of its loveable football counterparts for much of the last decade.
6-6 certainly isn’t a Top 25 national ranking or a fourth consecutive year in the MAC Championship. But it’s something, and certainly more than what the basketball Huskies have accomplished of late.
Anyways, there will be plenty of time to talk about NIU’s running back situation and debate who should fill the newly vacant starting quarterback spot soon enough once, or if, spring rolls around in April.
• Ross Jacobson is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RossJacobson.