NIU men squander 22-point lead in season-opening loss to UIC

DeKALB – Up by 11 points with 5:35 left, the NIU men's basketball team lost to UIC, 65-61, in the season opener for both teams Wednesday night at the NIU Convocation Center.

The Huskies (0-1) led by as much as 22 in the second half but committed eight turnovers and shot 25.9% from the floor in the final 20 minutes.

"I just think we stopped being aggressive or hunting shots more as our coach said in the locker room," guard Tyler Cochran said. "We were up and taking possessions like it didn't matter because we were up. ... If we're up 20, let's push it to 25."

Braelen Bridges started the comeback for the Flames (1-0), making a layup with 5:35 left to cut the NIU lead to 56-45.

Darius Beane seemed to stem the tide for the Huskies, making a pair of free throws to get the lead up to eight with 4;13 left, then answering after a UIC layup to push the lead to 60-52 with 3:45 left.

But it was the last field goal the Huskies made in the game.

"We were feeling good still," Beane said. "We let them cut into the lead, but we were still looking to be aggressive. Things just didn't turn out the way we wanted.

Beane finished tied with Cochran with a game-high 13 points.

It took more than two minutes for either team to score, with Trendon Hankerson scoring the season's first points. UIC briefly had a first-half lead, but the Huskies stormed to a 38-18 lead at the break.

NIU held UIC scoreless for 4:13 to start the second half but managed only a pair of free throws by Beane in that stretch.

"We just didn't flow as well in the second half," Montgomery said. "It's going to be a long season, and we can see what this team can do when we're all on the same page like we were in that first 20 minutes."

NIU trailed, 61-60, with the ball and 12 seconds left, but Michael Diggins stole the inbounds pass from Beane and made both free throws, building the lead to three.

Hankerson was fouled before he could take a shot with five seconds left, and he made one of his two free throws, but Jamie Ahale made two free throws to put the game away for the Flames.

By the numbers: Hankerson added 10 points for the Huskies, while RayQuawndis Mitchell and Teyvion Kirk scored 12 each for the Flames. Chinedu Kingsley Okanu grabbed six rebounds to lead the Huskies in his NIU debut, tying for the game high with Kirk. NIU committed eight turnovers in the second half after only four in the first half. The Huskies shot 53.3% from the floor in the first half and finished the game 3 for 10 on 3-pointers.

Beyond the stats: The Flames won the first game under new coach Luke Yaklich, a LaSalle-Peru native who coached at L-P and Sterling.

They said it: "You can't win a championship in one game," Beane said. "We'll get better. We'll cut down on the turnovers and stay the course."

Up next: The Huskies face SIU-Edwardsville at 6 p.m. Wednesday in DeKalb.

Eddie Carifio

Has been the sports editor in DeKalb since 2014.