DeKALB – It’s been a while.
Yes, it’s been more than two decades since the Northern Illinois women’s basketball team has made the postseason, but it’s been a long time since Huskies coach Lisa Carlsen faced off against South Dakota State coach Aaron Johnston in the Division II ranks.
When the Huskies play against the Jackrabbits in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament at 7 p.m. Thursday, Carlsen and Johnston will coach against each other for the first time since 2004.
“He’s built quite a program there,” Carlsen said about Johnston, who is in his 17th year with South Dakota State and faced Carlsen’s Nebraska-Omaha team eight times in four seasons. “They’re used to postseason basketball, and it ought to be a great atmosphere. They have a great following. They love basketball out there.”
When Carlsen coached with Nebraska-Omaha from 2000-04, the Mavericks played against the Jackrabbits when the two were in the same conference in Division II. Johnston won six of the eight games – including taking the two games in the 2003-04 season by a combined 80 points before the Jackrabbits moved up to Division I the next season.
“I remember I was just getting started at that point. The (North Central Conference) was a phenomenal Division II women’s basketball league. It was as good as there were in the country,” said Johnston, who is 414-141 (74.6 percent) during his long tenure at South Dakota State. “Right away, when we found out we were playing Northern Illinois, one of my first thoughts was I’ll be able to bring Lisa back to Brookings.”
While the Jackrabbits have made the NCAA tournament in seven of the past nine seasons, the Huskies (21-11) were on the verge of making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995 – they led by four points early in the fourth quarter before falling, 82-71, to Toledo in the Mid-American Conference Championship. For the players, the idea of waiting until Monday night to find out whether their season would go on was nerve-wracking.
“It was stressful,” said Huskies senior Cassidy Glenn, who averages 14.2 points a game. “We knew we’d find out between 7 (p.m.) and 8 (p.m.) and we didn’t find out until 7:58. We were like, ‘Why are they doing this to us? This is just cruel.’ It was a good feeling to know my senior year wasn’t over and we still have another shot.”
The Jackrabbits (22-8 overall, 12-6 in Summit League) have four players scoring in double figures – five, including Macy Miller, who averaged 14.9 points in nine games before getting injured for the season. Madison Guebert leads the team with 15.2 points a game, joined with 6-foot junior guard Kerri Young (13.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg), 6-foot-1 senior forward Ellie Thompson (13.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and 6-foot-2 senior center Clarissa Ober (10.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg).
Although the Huskies have been solid on the road – 10-5 on the season – the Jackrabbits, who have a 10.6 point differential a game this season, have been 12-1 at home. Johnston said that in his 17-year run at South Dakota State, the Jackrabbits have won about 90 percent of their home games.
For NIU, it’s been a breakout season in the second campaign under Carlsen. The Huskies won 20 games for the first time since 1993-94 and are making their first postseason appearance since 1994-95. In the first season under Carlsen, the Huskies went 11-19 overall and 4-14 in the MAC.
In the second year, the Huskies went 12-6 in conference play and made the MAC Championship for the first time in program history.
“You always hope for it – the sooner the better,” Carlsen said about the emergence of the Huskies. “I’m not the most patient person, but I think the buy-in from this group was a lot quicker and better than I anticipated it would be. Transition is hard; no matter what it is, it’s hard. You don’t know how long it’s going to take to really flip the page and really buy in from everybody. We got lucky that’s what we had.”