Justin Lee had four points all season entering Tuesday’s game against Akron.
But the NIU forward’s first career double-double, coupled with the game-winner with 1 second remaining from Darius Beane, helped the Huskies snap a four-game losing streak, while picking up their first MAC win and giving interim coach Lamar Chapman his first win.
“It feels great, just as I thought,” Chapman said. “We love the wins, and they always change your mood. So I’m in a great mood. Two o’clock game on a Tuesday, we won the game, sun is shining. So I feel good.”
NIU (2-9 overall, 1-5 MAC) didn’t take its first lead until the second half and led 65-60 with 1:34 left on a Lee bucket, his 15th point. But Akron (4-3, 2-2) tied the game with 13 seconds left in the game on a basket by Loren Cristian Jackson.
That set up Beane to make the winning shot. He finished the game 2 of 11 from the floor with six points.
“It felt good cause I was struggling all night,” Beane said. “A lot of them felt good, but they kept hitting the back iron. It felt great to watch this one fall in.”
Beane then fell to the floor, but got up quickly as there still was a second left on the clock. Chinedu Kingsley Okanu intercepted the inbounds pass at halfcourt to seal the win.
After Jackson tied the game, NIU crossed halfcourt and called timeout. Akron followed with a quick timeout before the inbounds pass. Chapman said that ended up helping NIU out.
“That initial set had Trendon [Hankerson] coming off a pindown and [Darius Beane] would still have the freedom to go one-on-one,” Chapman said. “Then he called the timeout and I went zipper action, so DB had the option to go one-on-one or Trendon would try to get a handoff with Justin Lee. But it worked out. When DB is on top of his game he’s one of the better guys on our team, if not the best guy at creating his own shot”
The Zips led by as much as 10 in the first half and, after NIU tied it early in the second half, led 44-36 with 15:25 left.
But the Huskies stormed back to take the lead on a bucket by Lee, part of a 5-0 run for the forward.
“I wasn’t too much in my head about scoring,” Lee said. “I felt like I was going with the flow of the game. Whenever I got the ball I just thought to be strong with it and make a strong move. I wasn’t too worried about scoring the ball.”
With 10:35 left, NIU went ahead again on a dunk by Nathan Scott and never trailed again.
The win was the first since the school cut ties with head coach Mark Montgomery on Jan. 3. He had been with the program for 10 years.
“Things started off a little rough at first,” Hankerson said. “When you cut the head off a snake it’s hard to get all the other moving pieces back in order. But I think we’ve done a great job here at NIU. It’s just a matter of sticking together.”
Lee said the team is coming together over the past couple weeks.
“We just have to play basketball as players,” Beane said. “Just play basketball and have fun. Play as hard as we can. We have to live with the results. But we can’t be lazy, just keep pushing.”
By the numbers: Lee finished with a game-high 15 points and 11 rebounds. Hankerson added 15 for the Huskies and Kingsley Okanu had 10. Beane had seven assists and eight rebounds. Ali Ali led the Zips with 15 points, and Enrique Freeman had 11 boards.
Beyond the stats: Tyler Cochran missed his third straight game. Chapman said he still is considered day-to-day.
They said it: “The play was to come up, get the ball, breakthrough and try to get to the basket,” Beane said. “I didn’t want to force it. It was kind of a tough night. I told my teammates, ‘I’m shooting this.’ I had a rough night, but with my teammates picking me up, we got some great effort off the bench. It was a great game.”
Up next: The Zips host Akron on Saturday while the Huskies are at Ball State.