NIU held an 11-point halftime lead but shot just 25.9 percent (7-of-27) in the second half as UC Santa Barbara came back to advance to the Vegas 16 Semifinals.
“I thought we played unbelievable basketball in the first half,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “They started the . . .
UC Santa Barbara (19-13) scored the first four points before NIU responded with the next seven to take its first lead of the night. Freshman Levi Bradley opened the scoring for NIU with a layup, senior Chuks Iroegbu added a free throw before a basket from Armstead and a pair from the line from sophomore Marin Maric put NIU in front with 15:40 to play in the first half.
After the Gauchos regained the lead, 13-11, the Huskies answered with the next five on baskets from Bradley and freshman Jaylen Key, along with a free throw from senior Travon Baker, to take a 16-13 lead with 12 minutes left in the half. Bradley finished with 10 points and Baker added nine.
A 6-2 burst gave the lead back to UCSB, but NIU used a 14-2 run to take a 32-21 lead with 6:27 to play before the intermission. Baker opened the run with a pair of triples, Armstead added a couple buckets, freshman Laytwan Porter and Iroegbu also scored during the run as the Huskies advantage reached 11.
The NIU lead grew to as much as 14 on a triple by Wilson with 4:01 left before the break; UCSB, however, trimmed its deficit to 11, 43-32, at the intermission.
Armstead led all scorers with 12 points in the opening 20 minutes; Gabe Vincent added 11 for the Gauchos. NIU shot 51.9 percent (14-of-27) from the field in the first half
Baker scored the first basket of the second half to push the NIU lead to 13, but the Gauchos scored the next nine to cut the Huskie advantage to just four, 45-41, with just over 15 minutes to play.
UCSB pulled within a pair, 48-46, until a pair of free throws from Maric and a bucket from Wilson pushed the NIU advantage back to a half-dozen, 52-46, with 10:51 left.
With the Huskies leading by four, 56-52, UCSB scored seven-straight points to take its first lead of the second half, 59-56, with 5:27 to play.
A jumper from Bradley brought the Huskies back within one, but the Gauchos scored the next five, taking a 64-58 lead with just over three minutes left.
Wilson brought the Huskies back within striking distance as he scored the next five points to trim the UCSB lead back to just one, 64-63, with 2:01 remaining.
After a layup by the Gauchos, NIU came up empty on back-to-back possessions, sandwiched around a free throw from UCSB, and the Gauchos took a four-point lead into the final minute. A pair of free throws from UCSB sealed the Huskies fate as the Gauchos advance to face Old Dominion in Tuesday’s semifinals.
“I’m proud of my guys,” said Montgomery. “They gave everything they had and put NIU basketball back on the map (this season).”
NIU’s season comes to a close with a 21-13 overall record, tying the second-most wins in school history. Senior Travon Baker’s remarkable Huskie career comes to a close with a school-record 126 games played, having never missed a game in four seasons, and 101 career starts. Baker finishes with a school-record 184 career steals, 357 career assists, second-most in school history, and was just four points shy of the 1,000-point plateau.
(Courtesy of NIU Athletics)