DeKALB – The offensive struggles Northern Illinois endured for the last 11 minutes of the first half disappeared early in the second half, as NIU rode a 16-0 run to a 73-56 victory over Akron on Saturday.
NIU (10-6, 3-0 in Mid-American Conference) shot 21 of 29 in the second half, keyed by Eugene German’s 20 second-half points, which included four of his five 3-pointers for the game.
“[NIU coach Mark Montgomery] was kind of getting on me because I guess it starts with me. I was in my feelings,” German said. “I was all over the place. I just wanted to come out and ignite our team, and that’s when everybody else started going.”
[Photos by Sean King for Shaw Media]
Two of his shots from beyond the 3-point arc came from what would have been beyond NBA range (23 feet, 9 inches). German had a game-high 27 points and added seven rebounds.
“That line doesn’t matter to German to go behind that,” Montgomery said. “It’s just rhythm 3s where you’re going to make a higher percentage when they’re catch-and-shoot instead of going off the dribble.”
NIU now is 3-0 to start MAC play for the second time under Montgomery, having also done so in the 2015-16 season. Akron dropped to 9-7 and 1-2 in the MAC.
“I definitely say that our guys took some tough coaching at halftime and came out and played with energy and great effort,” Montgomery said. “We shared the ball. Our defense was probably the best it has been for a half.”
Gairges Daow and Dante Thorpe fed off the energy provided by German’s quick start out of the halftime locker room, leading a 16-0 NIU run for a 54-44 Huskies advantage with 7:57 left in the game. Akron had led, 44-40, 6:28 into the second half.
Two buckets through contact, one followed by a free throw, quickly notched Thorpe five points during the stretch of 16 consecutive points. Thorpe scored 17.
Tasked with stopping Akron’s top scorers Daniel Utomi and Jimond Ivey, Levi Bradley held Utomi scoreless in the second half, and Thorpe held Ivey to eight points.
Thorpe made a point about the pride in his defensive abilities after holding Ivey to three points in the second half.
“I take pride in my defense every game,” Thorpe said “It wasn’t going to happen to me.”
Montgomery added, “I think [Thorpe is] one of the best defenders in the league.”
Montgomery praised Bradley’s defense, as well.
“Levi had to challenge himself to get out there and guard [Utomi], and I think he did an exceptional job of that,” Montgomery said.
Gairges Doaw added a game-high 10 rebounds to go with seven points and three assists. Lacey James scored 10 points, and Levi Bradley added eight.
“I told him after the game in the locker room, ‘This was the Daow of last year,’ ” Montgomery said. “Knocking down that corner shot with his defense and rebounding and aggressiveness is why he started 15-plus games.”
German had scored NIU’s first five points of the second half by attacking gaps against a 1-3-1 Akron zone and nailed a 27-footer after a mad scramble for a loose ball to cut Akron’s lead to 36-34 3½ minutes into the second half. He added another one from nearly the same spot, and Daow attacked the hoop for a deuce and NIU’s first lead, 45-44, since 9:39 remained in the first half.
With NIU making a short run late in the first half, Akron’s Channel Banks fired from deep and sank a bucket that ensured the Huskies would not cut too far into the Zips’ lead. Akron entered the break on top, 35-24, with NIU’s starting bigs, (Bradley, James) having only scored a combined five points.
“I think their change in defenses threw us off," Montgomery said. "It seemed like we were a step slow."
NIU didn’t get clean looks against the zone and Akron found itself up 12 thanks to a 17-2 run over nearly eight minutes of gameplay for its largest lead, 31-19.
[Sean King for Shaw Media]
The Huskies only were able to sink three field goals in the final 11:12 of the first half, with two of those buckets coming from Thorpe.
Trendon Hankerson, who played his first game of the season against Ohio, has done enough to earn Montgomery's eye and play significant minutes in each of his three games.
“He’s a good defender. He’ll hit the open man," Montgomery said. He’s a calm presence about him. I just like his toughness and defensive awareness.”
Up next: NIU hosts Central Michigan (13-3, 2-1 MAC) at 7 p.m. Saturday. The Chippewas are coming off a 97-87 overtime loss to Bowling Green.