If there ever was a time for Keno Davis' struggling Central Michigan squad to put together a winning streak of closely contested games, now would be it. CMU, just a few days removed from the second MAC win on the season, beat the MAC's grittiest squad 70-67 before a small home crowd at McGuirk Arena Sunday afternoon.
The Chippewas (10-16, 3-11 MAC), which led by as much as 10 midway through the second half, found themselves fighting off an NIU (12-14, 6-8 MAC) squad that has built a resume on refusing to quit. The Huskies rattled off a quick 6-0 run to cut the score to 54-50 at the 8:33 mark, and kept whittling away at CMU's lead from there. The Chips would respond, pushing the lead to three or more possessions at times, but as the game entered its final minute of action, NIU had built up some momentum and once again trailed by just five.
With Jordan Threloff pound CMU inside, Northern Illinois brought the game to within three before Travon Baker swiped CMU point guard Chris Fowler with 11 seconds to go. Baker grabbed the offensive rebound on an errant 3-pointer from Daveon Balls, and after a pair of timeouts NIU was in position to tie the game with just four seconds left on the clock.
The Huskies put the ball in the hands of senior wing player Aksel Bolin who fought his way through a stingy CMU press to hurl up a 3-pointer with two seconds on the clock, but it didn't fall, and CMU held on to get the moral-boosting win.
The Chippewas were beaten across the board, losing almost every statistical category to NIU, but dominated the turnover game, forcing 18 Huskies turnovers, and ultimately out-hustled the gritty dogs for just their third conference win on the season, and the first to not be decided in overtime.
It actually started off much more in NIU's favor. The Huskies, having vastly improved this season, have won by dominating inside and out-willing opponents, and they were doing just that in the early minutes of Sunday afternoon's contest. With a steady attack that saw five Huskies notch multiple points in the first seven minutes of action, NIU held a three-point lead.
But CMU's superior guard play, and stingy defense soon caught up to NIU, especially after Threloff left midway through the first half due to either a busted lip or bloodied nose. He returned later, having gotten himself cleaned up in the locker room.
The sharp-shooting Chippewas drained four of their 11 threes on the game in the final seven minutes of the half, taking a 32-25 lead into intermission. John Simmons was huge in that stretch, scoring six of his seven total point on the night in that span.
With CMU dictating pace and Threloff banged up, the Huskies were settling for forced jump shots, and sloppy guard play. The result was a 35 percent field goal percentage at the half, and 10 of their eventual 18 turnovers in the first half.
Things got worse as the teams returned from intermission. With Austin Stewart playing one of the best games of his career, CMU leapt out to an 8-to-4 run in the first three minutes of action, pushing their lead to 11 at that point. Stewart could not miss Sunday afternoon, going a combined 5-for-6 from the field, and 5-for-7 from the charity strip, racking up 16 points and a team-high six rebounds on the day.
Braylon Rayson and Fowler chipped in on the parade, each draining a 3 and several free throws to keep the Chippewas' lead at 10 with 10 minutes to go. Rayson finished with 19 points and a pair of steals, going 3-for-8 from behind the arc. Fowler had another fantastic well-rounded game, scoring 15, dishing out eight dimes, and swiping the ball three times.
But right about that time is when the Huskies started to battle back into this thing. Led by guards Aaric Armstead and Darrell Bowie, the Huskies rattled off a 15-7 run over the next eight minutes to bring the game to within four after an Armstead 3 at the 2:18 mark. Armstead, who has turned into one of the Huskies two best players down the stretch, had 19 on the day, along with seven rebounds. Bowie chipped in 14 and six, along with three dimes.
In the end, CMU's superior sharp-shooting proved to be the difference maker, with NIU's big man, Threloff, having an unproductive night offensively. He led the game with 10 rebounds, but wasn't the same factor inside as he has been in past games, notching just eight points. Balls was another spark for NIU, adding 10 points off the bench, but with CMU's trio of Fowler, Stewart and Rayson going a combined 7-for-15 from 3-point range NIU it wasn't enough.
It was a fantastic moral-boosting win for Davis' club which has been one of the must disappointing squads in the conference this season. After losing their first eight games in MAC play, the Chips have suddenly won three of their last six, and their last two. They still haven't beaten a team with a winning record in MAC play, but showing the tenacity to hang on and pull out these gritty wins this late in the season has to give the players hope that they could actually put up a fight in the MAC Tournament and maybe even pull off an upset instead of just being a punching bag.
NIU has now last three of its last five after starting the conference season with a 4-5 mark and currently sit at fourth in the West, and seventh overall in the conference. If Threloff can brush off Sunday's performance and play more like he has been in recent contests, NIU can maybe rattle off a pair of wins down the stretch. But with their next three contests coming against Toledo, EMU and Western Michigan, anything less a strong post presence will mean defeat.