MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Austin Stewart's tip-in with 3.7 seconds remaining lifted Central Michigan to a 68-66 victory over Northern Illinois Wednesday in a Mid-American Conference men's basketball game at McGuirk Arena.
It was CMU's 14th win at home, a program record, and it kept the Chippewas tied atop the MAC West with Toledo. Both teams are 9-4 in conference play. CMU is 19-5 overall and plays host to Ball State (7-17, 2-11) on Saturday.
The Chippewas led by as many as 16 points against a scrappy and physical Northern Illinois team (10-14, 4-9) that simply would not fade away. The Huskies, in fact, clawed their way back to forge a 66-66 tie on a Travon Baker three-pointer with 40 seconds remaining.
Central got the ball back and ran the clock down to under 10 seconds remaining. Chris Fowler's foul-line jumper missed, but Stewart was there for the tip-in, giving CMU its fourth straight MAC victory, its longest league win streak since 2002-03.
It was CMU's second-straight nail-biter. On Saturday, the Chippewas won at Buffalo, 75-74, when Fowler made a free throw with 8 seconds left.
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NIU's final shot, a drive by Baker, was defended by John Simons and missed.
While the outcome was the same as that of Saturday's game at Buffalo, the route was completely different.
At Buffalo, the Chippewas over came a 13-point halftime deficit. On Wednesday, they had to hold off a determined Northern Illinois team that continued to scrap despite trailing by double digits for most of the night.
"I think it shows the confidence that we have that whether we're down 13 at Buffalo or whether we've had a big lead evaporate at home against Northern Illinois. At the end of the game, you don't see many nerves in our team," CMU coach Keno Davis said. "We might miss shots. We might miss plays, but they don't look like a nervous group out there to me.
"They look like a group that's playing really hard and learning every day."
Braylon Rayson hit seven of his nine three-point attempts to finish with a season-high 23 points and made five steals to lead CMU. Simons added 11 points and Fowler had 10.
Fowler, the Chippewas' linch-pin, dished out eight assists, but he also committed eight turnovers in a physical contest in which neither team - aside from the Chippewas fast start courtesy of Rayson's shooting prowess - could get into much of a flow.
"Just like everybody else has got some bumps and bruises, (Fowler's) got some injuries," Davis said. "But I think at times guys aren't going to play their best, guys are going to have off nights, and Chris hasn't had many of them in three years (at CMU).
"It's nice to be able to win when he doesn't have his A- game, that other guys can step up and make plays as well."
Rayson hit four three-pointers before the game was four minutes old. His fifth triple came just before the midway point of the first half, and his scorching start helped stake CMU to its largest lead of the night, 30-14, with under eight minutes left in the half.
"Once I saw the first one go in, I was like, I know I can hit some more," said Rayson, whose seven three-pointers ties him for the most in a single game by a MAC player this season. "My teammates kept feeding me and I kept shooting.
"When I catch the ball I feel like I can shoot it from anywhere. That's the things I used to work on when I was younger. When I catch it, I just feel like if I can shoot it, I shoot it."
And while the Chippewas appeared at that point to be cruising, Northern Illinois refused to fold.
CMU committed 14 turnovers, more than three above its average and while its final numbers looked good, the Chippewas made 13 of their 31 three-pointers (41.9 %) - they suffered long stretches in the second half where things didn't go their way.
The 13 threes were the most the Chippewas have made in an eight-game stretch going back to a Jan. 21 home victory over Buffalo. They had made a combined 12 in their previous two games.
"As a team, there's just going to be nights where not everything's clicking, everything's not together," Stewart said. "We had a good start, but we kind of relaxed. They're a good team. They dug their way back into it."
As Davis has tended to do throughout much of the season, he took a big-picture view. No, CMU didn't play its best game, but it was good enough to grind it out in the end and make the plays it needed to.
"I think you have to give (NIU) credit," he said. "They were very physical and bodying us on the ball and bodying us at the basket and not giving us any open looks.
"That's something we haven't seen as much, that much physical play on the ball, but I think we'll learn from it – (so) if that's going to be a team's game plan, how (we can) execute a little bit better and take advantage of it and not turn the ball over.
"It was a very physical game. I think it was as tough a game to officiate as we've probably had all year because of that physical play. I think you saw that, not only by some of the missed opportunities inside, but the turnovers by both teams.
"You're talking 16 (NIU) and 14 (CMU) turnovers in a 60-point game, which is unusually high, but I think it was because both teams were bringing great energy defensively."
Aaric Armstead paced Northern Illinois with 19 points, while Jordan Threloff posted a double-double with 15 points and 11 boards. Others in double figures for NIU were Anthony Johnson (12) and Baker (11).
Ball State at Central Michigan (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET)
Eastern Michigan at Northern Illinois (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
(Courtesy of NIU Athletics/MRO Edit)