NIU (6-5) led most of the way, but UC Riverside shot 62.5 percent (15-of-24) from the field in the second half to erase a 12-point first half deficit. The Huskies were later able to overcome a four-point Highlander lead with two minutes left in regulation to force overtime and pull out the win in the extra session.
All 11 Huskies that played scored and the bench gave NIU a big lift, outscoring the UC Riverside reserves, 35-12.
“It was a tale of two halves,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “I thought we came out with great energy and effort in the first half, built a nice lead. Credit Riverside for coming back, then you have to credit our guys. We were down four with under six minutes to go and we found ways to make plays.
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NIU led for the first 33-plus minutes until a triple by Nick Gruninger gave UC Riverside its first lead of the night, 47-46, with 6:31 to play in the second half.
The lead went back-and-forth for the next two minutes until a layup by Jaylen Bland put the Highlanders up by three, 51-48, with four minutes to play.
UC Riverside (7-6) led by four, 56-52, as the clock ticked under two minutes to play, but Johnson knocked down a triple from the wing, and was fouled, with 1:36 left. The free throw was no good but NIU had trimmed the deficit back to just one.
Following a Highlander turnover, Johnson connected again from deep, this time from the corner, to give NIU a 58-56 lead with just 48 seconds left in regulation. Taylor Johns converted for UC Riverside with 32 seconds left to even the contest. The Huskies had the final possession of regulation but a shot rimmed out and NIU went to overtime for the second time in four games.
After winning the jump, the Highlanders scored first in the extra frame, but Baker knocked down a triple on NIU’s first possession to give the Huskies a 61-60 advantage.
The teams traded points until UC Riverside split a pair of free throws with 1:44 left to even the game again, 65-65.
Junior Keith Gray then converted a layup off a feed from Baker with 1:25 to go in the bonus session to push the Huskies back in front.
Consecutive empty possessions meant UC Riverside was forced to foul and send Baker to the line with 34 seconds left and NIU still leading by a pair. The junior from Detroit calmly sank both shots from the charity stripe to put NIU up by four.
A pair of free throws by the Highlanders cut the lead back to two, 69-67, but Baker converted two more from the line with 10 seconds to play to put the game out of reach.
Baker went 6-of-7 from the line in the contest and the Huskies as a team shot 74.3 percent (26-of-35) from the stripe, including 7-of-8 in the extra session.
Johns scored a game-high 19 points and grabbed a game-best seven rebounds to pace UC Riverside. Steven Jones added 14 points and Bland chipped in 13 for the Highlanders.
NIU built a lead as large as 12 in the first half as the Huskies led 20-8 less than 10 minutes into the contest. NIU led 11-8 before using a 9-0 run to take its largest lead of the night. Redshirt freshman Marin Maric started the run with a jumper in the lane, Baker added the first of his three triples on the night and senior Pete Rakocevic and junior Chuks Iroegbu each added a basket.
UC Riverside cut the gap to four, 22-18, until the Huskies closed the first half with an 8-3 burst as NIU took a 30-21 lead into the intermission.
The Highlanders quickly cut the deficit to just two, 36-34, five minutes into the second half but couldn’t get completely over the hump until Gruninger’s triple with 6:31 to play in regulation.
NIU will now look ahead to league action as the Huskies play three of their first four Mid-American Conference games on the road, beginning with a trip to Athens, Ohio to meet the Ohio Bobcats on Wednesday, Jan. 7. Game time against Ohio is slated for 6 p.m. CT., 7 p.m.ET.
(Courtesy of NIU Athletics/MRO Edit)