Four points to build on

The Washington Post Sunday - - COLLEGE BASKETBALL - John Fe­in­stein not For more by John Fe­in­stein, visit www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/fe­in­stein

The bus ride from Yp­si­lanti, Mich., to DeKalb, Ill., takes about five hours. For a bas­ket­ball coach, the best way to spend the ride home — es­pe­cially af­ter a loss — is to make full use of to­day’s tech­nol­ogy and go through game footage.

Mark Mont­gomery just couldn’t do it. It was just too soon, the feel­ings were a lit­tle too raw. So, like his as­sis­tant coaches and his play­ers, he sat in si­lence try­ing very hard to not think about what had just hap­pened.

This was eight days ago. That af­ter­noon, his North­ern Illi­nois men’s bas­ket­ball team had played East­ern Michi­gan. Mont­gomery, in his sec­ond sea­son as the Huskies’ coach af­ter spend­ing 10 years work­ing for Tom Izzo at Michi­gan State, had gone into the game feel­ing about as good as he had felt since tak­ing the NIU job.

The Huskies were coming off a win at Cen­tral Michi­gan, and Mont­gomery was look­ing for­ward to play­ing an­other game in his home state — about 20 miles, to be ex­act, from Inkster, his home town.

And then it all went wrong. The fi­nal score — East­ern Michi­gan 42, North­ern Illi­nois 25 — was bad. But it only told a small part of the story.

The Huskies led, 2-0, af­ter Ab­del Nader scored on a fast­break layup one minute in. That was their last field goal of the half. Their of­fense for the next 19 min­utes con­sisted of two made free throws. Re­mark­ably, they only trailed 18-4 at half­time.

“That was the funny thing about it,” Mont­gomery said. “We did a lot of good things in the game. We got more shots than they did, we killed them on the of­fen­sive glass [23-7], we had fewer turnovers. We just could

get a shot to go in. It didn’t mat­ter where we shot from, the ball just wasn’t go­ing to go in.”

The four points NIU scored in the first half set an NCAA record for fewest points in a half since the shot-clock era be­gan in 1985. Un­for­tu­nately, the pre­vi­ous record (five points) had been set just eight weeks ear­lier — by NIU in a game at Day­ton.

“We are def­i­nitely a team that lives on mak­ing shots from the perime­ter,” Mont­gomery said. “Or dies on miss­ing them. When we die, we really die.”

When he left the se­cu­rity of Izzo’s pro­gram af­ter be­ing a part of three Fi­nal Four teams, Mont­gomery knew there would be tough days as he re­built the NIU pro­gram. But not days like

this. The Huskies were 5-26 a year ago. Since 1973, they have had eight coaches; only one, Jim Moli­nari, left with a win­ning record. That was 22 years ago. This year’s team has seven fresh­men, three sopho­mores and two ju­niors.

“Be­fore I took the job, Coach Izzo told me it would be the third or fourth year be­fore I’d be judged and be­fore I could really hope to see progress in the won-lost record,” Mont­gomery said. He laughed. “Af­ter the game at EMU, he called me, be­cause that’s when your best friends call, and he said, ‘I told you: third or fourth year, don’t for­get that.’ I told him I re­mem­bered but this one was like a punch in the face.”

Mont­gomery knew his play­ers were hurt­ing. He gave them the day off Sun­day the way he nor­mally does and came into his of­fice to force him­self to look at the tape. That was when he be­gan to see some light at the end of the four-points-in-20minute tun­nel.

“I looked up early in the af­ter­noon and I saw the en­tire team had come in on their own to shoot,” he said. “They weren’t re­quired to do any­thing all day and they had or­ga­nized them­selves to get in and shoot. That told me that I really didn’t need to give them any kind of a speech on Mon­day. They had fig­ured it out them­selves.”

The next day, Mont­gomery told his play­ers what he had seen on tape. “You out­played them,” he said. “I can’t ask you to play harder than you did. We just need some shots to go in.”

Af­ter the de­ba­cle in Yp­si­lanti, Mont­gomery’s team was the butt of sportstalk jokes from around the coun­try. Through it all, he kept his sense of hu­mor. “We did hear a lot about it on cam­pus, which is un­der­stand­able,” he said. “All of a sud­den, the whole coun­try is talk­ing about your bas­ket­ball team but not for the rea­sons that you want.

“I told the stu­dent news­pa­per that my goal for Wed­nes­day would be to get to five points be­fore half­time be­cause that would be an im­prove­ment.”

They ac­tu­ally got to nine in less than three min­utes Wed­nes­day against Kent State, be­gin­ning the game on a 9-0 run. All of a sud­den, the boul­der that had been sit­ting on ev­ery­one’s chest since the week­end was gone. “You know the old say­ing: Shoot­ing is con­ta­gious — both ways,” Mont­gomery said. “Once we made a few shots in the game, we were able to start be­ing the team I’ve be­lieved we can be.”

The Huskies led most of the night and looked as if they were go­ing to cruise to a win. But be­ing ca­pa­ble of win­ning is one step, fin­ish­ing off wins is an­other. Up nine in the fi­nal three min­utes, they tight­ened and Kent State pulled even at 65 with less than 30 sec­onds to go. And so, af­ter shoot­ing ef­fec­tively most of the night — 7 of 13 from three-point range — NIU needed to make one more shot in or­der to go home happy.

The ball swung to Nader, the team’s lead­ing scorer. He went up to shoot with 2.2 sec­onds left and — just like in the movies — the shot swished. Four days af­ter hit­ting bot­tom, NIU cel­e­brated.

“I heard a lot af­ter the game at East­ern Michi­gan that peo­ple thought I might have lost the team be­cause the num­bers were so bru­tal,” Mont­gomery said. “Those kids proved who they are, not only with the way we played the game, but with the way we pre­pared for the game.

“Given what hap­pened, it was a very spe­cial night.”

Mont­gomery knows there is still a long way to go, as the Huskies are just 5-15 af­ter Satur­day’s 69-64 loss to Toledo. But four days af­ter the mis­er­able bus ride home at the end of a night­mar­ish af­ter­noon, he could walk out into a cold win­ter night with a smile on his face.

MATT CILLEY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

North­ern Illi­nois Coach Mark Mont­gomery said of his team’s shoot­ing, “When we die, we really die.”

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