CLEVELAND – The Huskies had no issue erasing a 23-point halftime deficit.
But it was the seven-point hole with two minutes left that knocked out Northern Illinois’ Cinderella hopes.
No. 3 seed Bowling Green dominated the first half and landed a key run late to stop NIU, 71-67, in a 2019 MAC Tournament semifinal on Friday night inside Quicken Loans Arena. The Falcons (22-11) advance to play in the 2019 MAC Tournament championship game Saturday night against No. 18 and top-seeded Buffalo (30-3).
Meanwhile, the Huskies (17-17) saw their longest run in the MAC Tournament in more than a decade come to an end.
“These NIU Huskies have a lot of fight,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “You saw that tonight.
“But we just didn’t close.”
Eugene German led the Huskies with 31 points and shot 12 of 18 from the field. Levi Bradley added 16 points, but no one else had more than seven as NIU shot 30.8 percent in the first half and 64.3 percent in the second.
Bowling Green’s Dylan Frye had 25 points to pace the Falcons and came up big in the final minutes. He had 10 points in the final 3:10 and hit 5 of 6 free throws in the final 44 seconds.
Justin Turner, who burned NIU for 34 points earlier this season, was held to 14. Forward Daeqwon Plowden added 12 points and eight rebounds.
NIU trailed, 46-23, at the half but stormed all the way back. However, Bowling Green snapped a 58-all tie with a 7-0 burst. Frye hit two free throws, Turner added a floater down the lane – BG’s first field goal in nearly eight minutes – and then Turner found Frye in the corner for a 3.
The run left NIU down, 65-58, with 2:17 to go. The Huskies got as close as 68-65 with 30 seconds left after Bradley’s 3-pointer, and 70-67 with 8.1 seconds left after German’s driving layup.
But Frye didn’t miss enough free throws to give NIU a chance at the tie in the closing seconds.
The Huskies entered having won four in a row, including offensively sharp tournament wins over Ohio and Toledo. NIU already had broken new ground under Montgomery, as the Huskies were playing in the MAC Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2003. NIU was gunning for a spot in the tournament final for the first time since consecutive trips in 1981-82.
But the follow-up to Thursday’s upset win hit a road block in the first half.
NIU got off to a quick start, with seven straight points from German, to take a 7-1 lead. But the Falcons responded with Frye, and his 10 points over less than four minutes, to fuel a 13-2 spurt.
The Huskies pulled to within 24-21 with 7:08 left in the half, then the bottom fell out.
BG closed the half with a 22-2 run over those final seven minutes and led 46-23 at the break. The offensive stretch read like a bad joke for NIU: 0 for 11 shooting, two charges, three total turnovers and a measly two free throws.
The Falcons shot a gaudy 60.7 percent in the half and looked poised to cruise into the championship round.
“Our defense just wasn’t together like it was this week,” German said. “When we came out with energy, you saw what we were able to do.”
NIU had other ideas. The Huskies opened the second half with an 8-0 flurry, locked down on the defensive end and staged a comeback that had Montgomery threatening to burst out of his skin on the sideline.
NIU cut the 23-point deficit to 16, then 12, then 10. After German converted back-to-back circus-worthy reverse layups, the deficit was only three.
The Huskies tied it at 56, with 5:11 left on McCarty’s left-wing 3-pointer.
“If we’re going out, we were going out with a fight,” German said.
The loss capped a hot-and-cold MAC season for NIU. The Huskies won their first four conference games, then suffered through a six-game MAC losing skid at the halfway point. NIU found itself again, late, and played some of its best basketball in the tournament.
“We stuck together,” Bradley said. “There was a lot of outside noise, but we always say ‘We all we got.’ And that’s how we go.”