DeKALB – The steals were leading to dunks, the 3s were dropping, five players scored in double figures and Northern Illinois University went above .500 for the second time in coach Rashon Burno’s tenure with a 107-55 win against Illinois Tech on Monday.
After a 92-70 loss to No. 4 Marquette in the opener, the Huskies (2-1) have won two straight, including a 91-78 win against Appalachian State on Saturday.
We can really do a lot when it comes to playing a high-major schools, teams like Northwestern and DePaul, and even in the Georgia State tournament, I think we’re going to show a lot of people we can really compete.”— WIll Lovings-Watts, NIU basketball
“If you take away the first 9 minutes against Marquette we are playing a high level of basketball on both sides,” Burno said. “I think we have the talent and experience, and some confidence we can keep up this level of play.”
In Burno’s first season, the Huskies won their first game but never got back above .500 during the 2021-2022 campaign. Last year’s team dropped its first two games – including one against D-II Illinois-Springfield – and finished 13-19.
This season, the team has followed its loss at Marquette – in which it put up 48 points in the second half – with two high-powered offensive performances. And the Huskies have done it without Keyshawn Williams who injured his knee last season and hasn’t returned yet. He’s expected back soon, according to Burno, although he said there was not an exact date or timetable yet.
NIU turned 29 turnovers by Illinois Tech (1-2) into 25 points.
“We’re getting more easy baskets in transition because I feel like we play our best when we’re playing faster,” said Xavier Amos, who had 14 points in the win.
The Huskies will have the chance to keep their hot streak rolling this weekend in Atlanta at the Capitol Challenge. They face Georgia State on Friday and Little Rock on Saturday, with both games tipping off at 1 p.m.
After that lurks two games in three days at Power 5 schools DePaul (Nov. 25) and Northwestern (Nov. 27).
“I feel like this team is going to really show it can compete,” said Will Lovings-Watts, whose 19 points was the most since an NIU freshman Eugene German’s 23 in a 2017 game against Eastern Michigan. “We can really do a lot when it comes to playing against high-major schools, teams like Northwestern and DePaul, and even in the Georgia State tournament, I think we’re going to show a lot of people we can really compete.”
Against the Scarlet Hawks, an NCAA D-III team, NIU trailed 7-4 early. They took the lead on a Zarique Nutter layup, then after the Scarlet Hawks tied it at 12, David Coit drained a 3 and the Huskies outscored them 42-9 the rest of the first half, including scoring 28 of the last 29 first-half points.
It was the first time they scored at least 100 points since a 100-59 win against Chicago State in 2018. It was the most they’ve scored since putting up 111 against St. Joseph (Indiana) in 2013.
Yanic Knoan Niederhauser and Zarique Nutter each scored 13 for the Huskies, with David Coit – NIU’s leading scorer in the first two games this season – posting 10. Konan Niederhauser and Harvin Ibarguen each had a game-best seven rebounds. NIU made 46% of its 3s in the first half and finished 8 for 22 from long range.
Burno said he hopes the next four games, just like the last two and a half games, can showcase how good this Huskies team can be. The team last finished with a winning record in 2019-2020. They went 18-13 heading into the MAC tournament before the rest of the season was canceled because of COVID-19.
“We still have a ways to go, and we aren’t where we need to be in certain areas,” Burno said. “When you get in these battles and start to compete against these good clubs like Marquette, it really forges something. I’m excited to see what we learned from our first outing against Marquette in the first 9 minutes, if we can respond the right way when we play a DePaul or Northwestern.”