CLEVELAND – The past couple of years, going up against Eastern Michigan’s zone defense has been a nightmare for the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team.
Eastern Michigan came into the second round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament leading the MAC in points allowed at 61.8, and as of March 10, the Eagles led the nation in field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 36.4 percent.
During the first half, NIU looked like it had solved the Eagles’ defense, but the second half was all too familiar.
After shooting 11 of 23 in the first, the Huskies went 3 for 21 in the second half of a 53-48 loss Wednesday at the MAC Tournament at QuickenLoans Arena. In the first, NIU shot 5 of 11 from 3-point range, but went 0 for 6 in the second. NIU also had 10 second-half turnovers.
The seventh-seeded Huskies ended their season at 15-17.
The sixth-seeded Eagles (20-13) advanced to play No. 3 Buffalo tonight.
“They try to take away a lot of our options of getting it into the post. We obviously want to get it into the post a lot,” NIU guard Aaric Armstead said. “I don’t think that really took the toll on us. I think that our decisions that we made really had the worst effect on us.”
The Huskies ended a strong first half with an impressive 11-2 run at the end of the period. The big lead NIU took into halftime evaporated with 8:38 left in the second half following a layup by Eastern Michigan’s J.R. Sims to tie the score at 42.
Eastern Michigan took a 49-48 lead with 1:12 remaining. NIU had a chance to tie or take the lead with 58 seconds left, but Jordan Threloff missed the first free throw of a one-and-one.
The Huskies looked like they would have a chance to grab the lead again with around 30 seconds left. NIU guard Aaric Armsted grabbed a rebound off a missed shot by Daylen Harrison, but Sims came up from behind to take it out of his hands.
“I just saw an opportunity and went for it,” Sims said of the steal. “... I saw him turn his back. I saw the opportunity, was able to get the ball.”
NIU tried to foul Sims and it looked like one would be called, but the Eagles would moved the ball around for 11 seconds before NIU could foul an Eagle.
“Nothing surprises me anymore with how the game is being called, “ NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “I thought we got a great stop in that situation, and then unfortunately the foul wasn’t called right away.”
Karrington Ward would extend the Eagle lead to three after two free throws, and Huskies guard Travon Baker couldn’t convert a long three on the ensuing possession, the Huskies’ last chance to tie the score.
NIU looks like a program on the upswing after improving by 10 wins in Montgomery’s third season, but this year’s team ends the season with a sour taste in their mouths.