With the victory, NIU improves to 21-11 on the season and advances to face No. 2 seed Ohio on Thursday nightin the MAC quarterfinals at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
“We pride ourselves on defense and rebounding, and we decided to rebound in the second half,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “I thought we defended good enough to win the game. When it’s March, you can bend but not break, you have to . . .
“We missed the big fella (Marin Maric) today, because it was a physical game. Credit (Levi) Bradley and (Andrew) Zelis; they are probably our two players of the game.”
After being outrebounded 24-9 in the opening 20 minutes, the Huskies won the battle on the boards 28-19 in the second half. Junior Aaric Armstead added 12 points as NIU won for the second-straight game without leading scorer and rebounder Marin Maric.
Western Michigan (13-19) scored the first basket of the game before the Huskies knocked down a trio of triples to take a 9-2 lead. Baker knocked down the first triple, Armstead added a trifecta and Baker hit another as NIU took a seven-point lead with 16:16 to play in the first half.
The Broncos trimmed the NIU lead to a pair, 16-14, just past the midway point of the opening half until back-to-back layups from Bradley and freshman Jaylen Key pushed the Huskies back in front by a half-dozen, 20-14, with 8:34 left in the opening 20 minutes.
NIU still led by a half-dozen until four-straight by the Broncos pulled Western Michigan within a pair, 26-24, with less than four minutes left in the half.
Following a triple by Bradley, the Broncos scored the next six to take a 30-29 lead but Baker made a pair from the charity stripe to push the Huskies back in front, 31-30, at the intermission. Baker led all scorers with 11 points in the first half.
Western Michigan scored the first basket of the second half, but the Huskies answered with the next eight as NIU took a 39-32 lead with just over 12 minutes to play. Sophomore Andrew Zelis scored the first bucket of the run, Bradley, freshman Laytwan Porter and junior Michael Orris each added baskets as the Huskies took a seven-point lead.
The Broncos responded with a 10-3 burst to pull back even, 42-42, with 5:35 left, but on the next possession, Baker buried a triple to push the Huskies back in front by three.
Two free throws from Baker extended the NIU lead to five, 47-42, with 4:20 to play. The Broncos then scored the next three to cut the NIU lead back to a pair with 2:18 left.
Another clutch jumper from Baker pushed the hosts’ lead back to four and the Huskies made their next six consecutive foul shots, two from Armstead and four from Bradley, to keep the Broncos at bay and advance to Cleveland.
Tucker Haymond scored 17 points to lead the way for Western Michigan. He was the only Bronco in double figures.
(Courtesy of NIU Athletics)