What a game. A tale of two halves: first being where there where hardly any fouls were called with plenty of lead changes to Northern Illinois (13-2, 2-0 Mid-American Conference) maintaining a distancing lead during a chess match in the second. The Huskies came out on top 80-63 where Travon Baker stole the show to keep NIU undefeated at home.
Five minutes in, we saw six lead changes. James Thompson, noted as top-5 in the nation in field goal percentage before the game, put up a quick nine points, going 3-for-3 with a trio of free throws early on, including an alley-oop layup fed by Brandon Nazione from the top of the arc.
Both teams shot poorly from long range early on, a combined 0-for-11 to start. Ty Toney with a skip pass to Nazione ended in a turnover, senior Travon Baker made the first one of the night to extend the Huskies lead 23-19 at the under-7-minute mark of the first half. He'd make another one two minutes later to make it a 3-possession game, the largest lead by either team so far in a game with 14 lead changes.
Watching the two big men out-play each other was something else. Marin Maric for NIU had 14 points and five boards at the half while Thompson put up 15 and four. The big difference at the half, however, is that Thompson had two fouls to his name at the break, including one with 36 seconds left underneath the rim, while Maric had none. Thompson hadn't missed a shot until missing both free throws at the start of the second half, fouled by Baker on the inbound under the rim.
Unlike the first half, the refs ended up blowing the whistle a lot in the the early goings of the second half with Eastern Michigan (9-6, 1-1 MAC) finally reaching the bonus near the 16-minute mark. They were down by 10 at the half, but Raven Lee, who was off to a really slow start and couldn't really get anything going for a while, made a 3-pointer from the corner to cut the Huskies' lead to four.
Ty Toney would then made the tenth and eleventh free throws for EMU after Levi Bradley picked up his third foul of the game to make it a 2-point game.
The fouls just kept coming though. The three leading scorers for EMU, Lee, Mangum and Thompson, would all find themselves with three fouls against them, but the only one who would stay on the bench would be Lee as head coach Rob Murphy knew that he needed his playmakers out on the floor in a tight game, trying to retake the lead.
Raven Lee would eventually come off the bench though, and he'd strike with a transition layup to tie the game back up at 47 a piece, then a pair of free throws for the Eagles to take back the lead for the first time in 19 minutes of game play. But NIU would continue with their ways of being effective free throw shooters too, Maric making a pair of his own to tie it back at 49.
9:38. James Thompson picks up his fourth foul as Chuks Iroegbu made a play at the rim. He stayed in the game, but Lee with three fouls against him would come back off the floor. Looks like he's going to have to come back off the bench to be a quick scorer with the long range shots if and when Thompson fouls out, right?
Baker stayed hot for NIU, making his fifth three-pointer of the night, racking up 17 points to keep the Huskies up 58-52. This is where coaching comes into play.
Everybody's in foul trouble for Eastern Michigan now that Nazione picked up his third. This made shots fall a little bit easier for the Huskies, playing things a little bit safely on defense, waiting until later in the game use them up, but trying to get to the free throw line in the mean time.
Unfortunately for the Eagles it would be Mangum to be the first to foul out (3:11) after a lackluster shooting performance: three points making only one of eight shot attempts.
Baker continued to dominate. He made a sixth, then a seventh 3-pointer, then lobbed up an alley-oop to Iroegbu for the icing on the cake. He would close out with 25 points, shooting 53 percent from the floor (7-for-11 behind the arc), easily the biggest reason why NIU came out on top.
Maric finished with a double-double and only one foul against him. 18 points (6-for-6 free throws), 10 rebounds; Aaric Armstead had 12 points with three assists.
Thompson ended up not fouling out in his 37 minutes on the floor. Nearly perfect shooting, missing only one of his nine shot attempts from the floor, 7-for-9 at the charity stripe, 23 total points with eight rebounds.
Lee had only three points to his credit at the half, but finished with 13 (4-for-10). This, after putting up 32 on the road against Central Michigan on Wednesday.
A big area where NIU really had the upper-hand was in the turnovers. Both teams had 18 of those, but NIU would hit more shots, 29 points off of those as opposed to EMU's 16.
They were also matched in free throws. Huskies did shoot a little bit better, 21-for-22 as EMU went 20-26. Maric and Iroegbu both had six for NIU, Thompson led with 7 for EMU while Toney went 6-for-6.
Nazione's parents traveled to the game. Before the game started, players donned "Mike Strong" shirts, honoring the forward's father who was battling cancer. He made a 3-pointer, but didn't do much else, making a trio of free throws to finish with six points and one rebound.
Levi Bradley had a career-high 19 points against Ohio in the MAC opener on Wednesday. He looked comfortable early on, moving the ball around quickly, but head to the bench seemingly early in the second half after picking up four fouls, ending with six points.
Two straight double-digit scoring contests for Jodan Price with 10 against North Florida and 19 at CMU, but outside of a long 2-pointer early in the game, he didn't make anything else.
The Huskies get their first road MAC game on Tuesday, traveling to Toledo as the Eagles get their first home contest in MAC play to face off against Buffalo.