DeKALB – In each of head coach Mark Montgomery’s first two seasons, Northern Illinois couldn’t reach more than five wins.
Friday, NIU earned its sixth win of the 2013-14 season with a 65-51 victory over Bethune-Cookman to close out non-conference play.
However, it was sort of a bittersweet victory for the Huskies (6-6), who had to play without freshman guard Dontel Highsmith, who suffered a torn ACL in Tuesday’s loss at Iowa State. NIU plans to seek a medical hardship waiver for the Dowagiac, Mich. native, who appeared in 11 games this season and averaged 10.5 points, which was a team high.
One player who can pick up some of the slack the Highsmith injury leaves is freshman guard Aaric Armstead, who took Highsmith’s place in the starting lineup and had a career-high 11 points in the win. Montgomery hopes to have Highsmith back on the floor during the offseason in August or September. He will have surgery in two to three weeks when the swelling on his knee goes down.
Armstead, starting the second game of his short career, went 3 of 7 from the field and hit all five of his free-throw attempts. He added five rebounds.
“If I was still playing I’d hate for a 6-5 guard to cover me. He uses his length, and he has quickness. He can definitely go to the offensive glass. Good athlete,” Montgomery said of Armstead. “I just think he needs more time to get comfortable. I think Aaric, like a lot of our guys, will do anything to help the team.”
Armstead averaged 14.3 minutes and just 3.1 points per game heading into Friday night. He played 26 minutes against Bethune-Cookman (2-15), which tied a career high he set in his only other start of the year against Dartmouth on Dec. 5.
“You could say it was a big adjustment but the way we prepare in practice, it helps us, it helps me in the game,” Armstead said of his increased playing time. “We constantly go a lot of reps in practice, we scrimmage, they tell me to stay in the whole time so that transfers over into the game.”
Sophomore wing Darrell Bowie added 11 points and nine rebounds for the Huskies, while Armstead’s brother, junior Aaron, finished with 10 points and Pete Rakocevic added nine.
NIU will also be without freshman center Marin Maric, who had two pins inserted in his foot, the rest of the season. He hasn’t played since Nov. 30 and Montgomery hopes to have him back this summer. Senior guard Antone Christian had MCL surgery Thursday and will be out 3-4 weeks.
The Huskies begin Mid-American Conference play Wednesday at Buffalo and then travel to Bowling Green on Jan. 12. They return home Wednesday, Jan. 15 when they’ll take on Kent State.