CLEVELAND, Ohio— For the first time in 35 years the Northern Illinois University Huskies are heading to the MAC Tournament championship.
If they play like they have over the last three days, it’s not out of the question that they could win the school’s first-ever conference tournament title.
The Huskies topped the Western Michigan University Broncos 83-55 on Friday afternoon behind a dazzling display of offensive production. Courtney Woods led the way for the Huskies with 19 points and seven rebounds. Ally Lehman added 17 points while Kelly Smith contributed 15. Cassidy Glenn finished one rebound shy of a double-double with her 10 points and was joined by Janae Poisson with 10 as well.
Their win puts them in the best position to win a conference tournament title since the first year the MAC Tournament was established in 1982, and the significance is not lost on the Husky players.
“It definitely means a lot for our program. Our big hashtag this year was ‘#RestoretheGlory,’” Woods said. “We have been kind of down the last couple years and I think all the pieces are falling into the right places, and if there's any year that we're going to go out there and grab, I think this is our year, and I'm really excited to play tomorrow.”
Both Northern Illinois and the Western Michigan came into their MAC tournament semifinal game riding high after thrilling quarterfinal victories.
For the Broncos, it was knocking off the No. 1 seeded Central Michigan, 67-63. They were not to be outdone by the Huskies, who completed an impressive second half comeback to beat Ohio University, 72-71.
The second quarter would be the most critical one for the Huskies. They outscored the Broncos 26-14 and went into the locker room with a 44-24 halftime lead. The Huskies shooters were lights out for the entire first half, shooting 16-30 from the field with six three-pointers.
“Once one of us hits a shot, it just really gives us a lot of energy and motivation, and then it's just a domino effect,” Smith said about the team’s second quarter performance. “We are just all playing off each other's energy, just getting confidence that we're going to make our shots and just our perseverance to keep shooting.”
If even a casual Northern Illinois fan watched the second quarter, it would be blatantly obvious to them who the Huskies catalyst is. Yes, Lehman finished the afternoon with 17 points, but it is extremely clear that her value transcends scoring.
She knows exactly when to shoot versus when to pass it off to a teammate, which is why she finished with a team-high six assists. She pushes the pace of the game for the Huskies but knows when to slow down and get her team under control.
And even though she is a point guard, she is never hesitant to crash the boards on both ends of the court. In fact, she was tied for the second-most rebounds for the Huskies with seven, along with Woods in the win.
“I've coached some talented players before, but I don't know that anybody makes the people around her better than Ally has made them this year,” head coach Lisa Carlsen said. “She's a fiery competitor and she's fierce on the court, and she'll run through the wall and do anything you ask. I think any time you have a player like that, you have a chance.”
By the end of the half, Lehman was leading her team with nine points, five rebounds, and three assists.
The Broncos got off to a hot start early in the first, going up 6-2 and proving that being the eight seed would not make them intimidated. A three-pointer from Lehman, as well as some critical jumpers from Renee Sladek, would give the Huskies a 10-point lead that they were able to build on in the second quarter with their scoring surge.
The Broncos shooting improved slightly in the third quarter, but NIU did not have a major drop off in their offense. By the end of the quarter, Woods, Lehman, Smith, and Glenn, were all in double figures for the Huskies.
The Huskies also went into a zone defense to try and push Western Michigan into shooting outside shots. Their defensive strategy worked as they held on to their 20-point lead going into the final 10 minutes.
Ultimately, the deficit would prove to be too much for the Broncos, despite Breanna Mobley’s 17 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.
The Huskies may have never won a MAC Tournament championship but will have a chance to play for their first title against the winner of the Toledo/Buffalo game in the MAC Tournament championship game on Saturday morning at 11 a.m EST.