Nov. 18, 2009
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -
Playing its second Big Ten Conference opponent in four days, the Northern Illinois men's basketball team (0-2) put up a valiant defensive effort to reduce a 19-point first-half deficit to just three points early in the second half, but No. 23/25 Illinois (2-0) placed five players in double-figures en route to an 80-61 win over the short-handed Huskies Tuesday night at Assembly Hall. The game marked the first-ever meeting between NIU and the Fighting Illini.
Playing their first game without injured junior guard Xavier Silas, who led NIU with 18 points at Northwestern (Nov. 13), the Huskies were led offensively by junior forward Najul Ervin and freshman guard Tony Nixon, who each chipped in 10 points. Sophomore guard Bryan Hall came off the bench to score a career-high nine points, and provided a contagious defensive spark that helped NIU mount a convincing comeback early in the second half.
Illinois was led by freshman Brandon Paul's 20 first-half points, including a torrid 4-of-5 effort from three-point range. Four other Illini players joined Paul in double figures, including Mike Davis, who also pulled down a career-high 17 rebounds.
The Huskies shot 36.8 percent from the field, and converted just 6-of-12 free throws (50 percent), but had a combined nine blocks and steals, and held the Fighting Illini to just a 40 percent second-half shooting effort.
Junior guard Darion "Jake" Anderson ripped down 10 rebounds, just one off his career-high, but was limited to just four points, all coming in the first four minutes of the game. For the second-consecutive game, Anderson was plagued by foul trouble, and was limited to just 22 minutes. Junior center Sean Kowal chipped in eight points on 3-of-10 shooting, and corralled four rebounds in 33 minutes.
Much like the Northwestern contest, through the first eight minutes of the game, Northern Illinois enjoyed an effective offensive rhythm against Illinois' pressure man-to-man defense. At the second media timeout (11:54), Illinois was clinging to just a 21-18 lead. But the Illini then heated up on the offensive end, stringing together a commanding 21-6 run to take an 18-point lead (42-24) with 5:26 remaining in the first half.
Hall entered the game with 3:06 left in the opening stanza, and immediately made a defensive impact that jumpstarted a 14-3 NIU run to end the half. He swiped two-straight steals, and converted ensuing transition layups on the other end, trimming the lead to 46-35 with 1:46 remaining.
After Demetri McCamey's jumper gave Illinois another double-digit (49-38) lead with 55 seconds left in the first half, Hall put an exclamation on his aggressive stretch, grabbing a loose ball, pulling up from half-court, and draining a three-pointer off glass as time expired - it was his first-career three-point field goal. Illinois took a 49-41 lead into the locker room at halftime.
NIU kept momentum rolling early in the second stanza, opening the half on a 5-0 flurry to pull within three, 49-46, just 90 seconds into the frame. Illinois quickly answered with a 6-0 run, and extended its lead back to nine points (55-46) with 15:39 remaining. After a steal and ensuing layup by McCamey with 10:34 left, the Fighting Illini's lead stretched back to double-digits, 61-50.
That advantage ballooned to 67-50 after back-to-back free throws by Mike Tisdale with 9:14 left; but the Huskies again responded, scoring seven quick points, capped off with a three-pointer by Tyler Storm, to trim the lead to just 10, 67-57, and force Illinois head coach Bruce Weber into a timeout with the momentum on the Huskies' side. Illinois finished the game on a 13-4 run over the final 8:01 to secure the hard-fought win.
Northern Illinois will play its home opener Friday (Nov. 20) when Tennessee State visits the Convocation Center beginning at 7 p.m.