NIU men fall at buzzer in MAC Tourney

Kevin Zabo converted a layup as time expired as Kent State claimed a dramatic, 61-59 victory over the Northern Illinois University men’s basketball team on Monday night in the Mid-American Conference Tournament First Round at the MAC Center.

The game-winner finished a wild contest that featured seven ties and 10 lead changes in which neither team led by more than four in the final eight minutes.

Junior Levi Bradley (Milwaukee, Wis./Pius XI) scored all of his team-high 18 points in the second half, sophomore Eugene German (Gary, Ind./21st Century Charter) added 12 points and sophomore Justin Thomas (Indianapolis, Ind./Pike) grabbed a game-high tying, and career-best, eight rebounds.

“(Kent State) made the play at the end of the game, unfortunately the free throw didn’t go in,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “We had a good stretch where we were up six and had a lot of momentum but they made two big shots, two big threes. We weathered that storm, got the lead back, got a defensive stop and the end, down one, we let them play and (Eugene German) got to the basket.”

NIU led by six, 48-42, on the heels of a 10-0 with just over nine minutes to play, but Kent State responded with the next eight to take a 50-48 lead.

Bradley connected on a triple to move the Huskies back in front with 5:19 to play and, after a basket by Kent State, Bradley made a pair of free throws and junior Dante Thorpe (Washington, D.C./Triton College) scored three-straight as NIU led 56-52 with 2:27 remaining.

Thorpe finished with nine points on 4-of-9 shooting.

Kent State (16-16) scored the next five to move back in front by one, a jumper by Bradley briefly gave the lead back to the Huskies but Zabo converted a layup with 1:07 to go as the Golden Flashes led, 59-58.

Following an empty possession for both teams, German attacked the basket and was fouled with 7.4 seconds left. The Huskie sophomore made the first free throw to tie the game and, following a Kent State timeout, the second free throw rimmed out.

The Golden Flashes raced the other way and Zabo’s layup banked off the glass and in to give Kent State the victory.

Zabo finished with a game-high 19 points, Jalen Avery added 13 and Adonis De La Rosa scored 10 points with eight rebounds for the Golden Flashes who advance to face Ball State in the MAC Quarterfinals.

Kent State lead in the early going, 8-4, until a 7-0 Huskie run pushed NIU in front, 11-8, with 14:11 to play in the opening half. German scored the first five of the burst and Thorpe added a layup as NIU took a three-point lead.

NIU led by four until Kent State scored six-straight as the Golden Flashes, moved back in front, 15-13.

With the Golden Flashes still in front by two, Kent State used an 8-0 run to balloon its lead to 29-19 with two-and-a-half minutes to play in the first half.

NIU closed the first half on a 6-2 burst as sophomores Noah McCarty (Rock Falls, Ill./Sterling Newman) and Gairges Daow (Melbourne, Australia/Victory Rock Academy) each knocked down triples to trim the Kent State lead to 31-25 at the intermission.

Kent State led by nine early in the second half before a 6-0 run by the Huskies trimmed the Golden Flashes lead to just three, 38-35, with 16:27 left. Bradley ignited the run with a pair of free throws and a turnaround jumper while Daow added a layup off an offensive rebound.

A 10-0 Huskie run pushed the Huskies in front by a half-dozen with just over nine minutes left. McCarty made a pair of free throws to open the spurt, Bradley knocked in a triple from the top of the key, junior Lacey James (Grand Rapids, Mich./Rider) made a pair at the line and Daow hit a triple off a skip pass from Thorpe to give NIU a 48-42 lead, setting up the game’s dramatic final minutes.

NIU finishes its season with a 13-19 overall record.

“What I’m proud of is our defense traveled, our energy traveled, our effort traveled, our heart traveled,” said Montgomery. “If we can have that mindset for next year and have those four things, no matter where we are at, on the road, you have the opportunity to win games. We were in this game tonight, we just didn’t close it out.”

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