DeKALB – The 2,005 fans that filled the Convocation Center crescendoed throughout the final 10 minutes of the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team’s Mid-American Conference West Division game against Western Michigan, some even rising to their feet as NIU stormed back from a 16-point deficit.
The Huskies, who came into the game on a three-game winning streak, hasn’t given their fans much to cheer about for the past two years, but with a chance to rise to .500 and win their 11th game of the season, the sense of excitement was palpable.
Down the stretch, Travon Baker scored nine straight NIU points, Aksel Bolin scored four, and Aaron Armstead added to his 14 points to put the Huskies to within two with 49 seconds remaining.
Unfortunately for the fans that have gone through the few ups and the many downs of Mark Montgomery’s first three years at NIU, the Huskies couldn’t complete the comeback and fell, 74-71, after Aaric Armstead’s last-second half-court heave hit the backboard and the side of the rim.
“If we could bottle up our last 10 minutes and play with that much energy and that much effort, these last eight games could be very special,” Montgomery said. “Our guys battled back, played hard, but they just came up a little short.”
Western Michigan (14-8, 7-3 Mid-American Conference) may have been the team facing a sizable deficit had it not been for guard David Brown. The senior from Roscoe scored 20 of his team’s 37 points in the first half and 25 points by the time he missed his first shot with more than 10 minutes left in the game.
“It felt like I was watching an NBA player making shot after shot,” Montgomery said.
The Huskies (10-12, 4-6 MAC) hung with Brown and the Broncos throughout the first half, with Aaron Armstead’s 10 first-half points keeping the deficit manageable as the Broncos held a 37-33 lead going into the break.
The Huskies battled back after the Western Michigan lead ballooned to 63-47 and had a chance to tie with a five seconds remaining, but Baker’s 3-pointer was off.
While they couldn’t complete the comeback, the mere fact that they had a chance to tie encapsulates the improvement this team has made.
One year ago, the Huskies were in the midst of an 11-game losing streak to close out the season. Now, they’re finding ways to stay in games after falling behind by nine or more in the second half, as they did during their last three wins.
“I feel like we’re a little bit more focused [this year],” Baker said. “We have the new guys coming in and they’re helping us. Our mindset right now is just to win.”
Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins pored over NIU’s most recent games as he prepared for Sunday. Then, he watched his team’s two games against the Huskies last year, both Broncos’ victories.
Montgomery’s team certainly has a long way to go, but Hawkins knows that the Huskies are far ahead of where they were during the two previous years.
“They’re running the same stuff, they’ve just got a lot better players running it,” Hawkins said. “There’s just a lot more talent than there’s been in the past. Some of it has been recruiting, there’s no doubt about it, Monty’s done a terrific job, and his staff’s done a tremendous job of bringing in great players. But equally impressive has been the players from within the program getting better. That’s not an easy thing to do, to get a player a lot better. They’ve really helped out with that.”
DeKalb graduate Jordan Threloff scored a team-high 16 points, going 7 of 8 from the field.