The national media showed up in Dekalb tonight, as the Northern Illinois Huskies tried to return their campus to normal following last weeks tragedy. 2,032 fans showed up to begin the healing.
NIU took another small step Tuesday night, when it hosted Western Michigan in the first athletic event on campus since a gunman killed five students in a lecture hall before taking his own life on Feb. 14.
Northern Illinois players and coaches wore ribbons, as did many in the crowd, while Western Michigan paid tribute with NIU patches.
"Dead tired" were the two words that summed up this game for Coach Steve Hawkins. Between arriving home early Sunday morning from Green Bay, and having to go back on the road Monday night, the Broncos had a severe case of "bus lag."
After the game a somber Steve Hawkins spoke about the win.
"It wasn't great game by either team," stated Hawkins. "Both teams were sloppy, and a bit sluggish. Our kids were very respectful of he circumstances, but we were still here to compete. This game was about getting their basketball team back on the court, and helping return some normalcy to NIU's campus."
David Kool started slow, but finished in a rush. Hawkins addressed that.
"We are dead tired. The trip to Green Bay didn't help us. We had to play the Green Bay game at 8 PM Eastern time, and then return to Kalamazoo. We got in about 6 AM. Then we had practice that afternoon on very little sleep. We had to put together a game plan, then go to class on Monday, have practice, and get on a bus to DeKalb. The trip over took a long time because of the weather, and then you have to sit around the hotel."
"After all of that to have found a way to win says a lot about these kids. Dave Kool and Andrew just gutted it out at the end and got the win for us."
This team has won a number of games in the late going, and that has to be attributed to experience.
"One advantage to having a veteran basketball team is they don't get rattled or panic," said Hawkins. "I didn't feel like either team was playing competitive basketball until late in the game. Then about the 6 minute mark the game started to have a flow and a real feel to it."
"We started executing, and started getting some defensive stops. We got to the free throw line in the end and were able to pull out the win."
The Broncos came out sluggish and played the majority of the game in a sluggish fashion, shooting a dismal 34% from the field. They got to the line 21 times making 15 free-bees. NIU was no better shooting 34% from the field, but only took 8 free throws.
The Broncos ability to get to the hole and draw fouls was the difference in this game. Both Andrew Hershberger and Joe Reitz were unstoppable in the paint. Rietz had a double double with 12 points and 15 boards, while Berger had 14 points and 8 rebounds. Dave Kool lead the Broncos in scoring with 16.
Western Michigan out rebounded the Huskies 44-38. Both teams were sloppy with the ball, as the Broncos turned it over 18 times, and the Huskies 21.
"We certainly wanted to write a different story for you guys," said NIU coach Ricardo Patton following the game. "We thought we could write a little different headline for you."
Although Patton thought the teams were "pretty competitive," Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins acknowledged his "competitive juices weren't there."
"I couldn't even yell at the referees the way I wanted," he said.
Jarvis Nichols, who led NIU with 16 points, added he had trouble focusing.
"At the beginning, it was a little weird," he said.
Some athletes, including a few who were on the court Tuesday, have class in Cole Hall. Huskies senior Shaun Logan was in that room earlier in the day for film analysis, and a friend of guard Michael Patton—the coach's son—escaped the shootings.
"If we can use basketball as a medium to get back to normal and get things the way they were going before a terrible tragedy like this happened, then I think that's really the only issue here," said Western Michigan's Joe Reitz, who had 15 rebounds
Western Michigan goes to 10-3 in the MAC wrapping up the MAC West outright.
Western Michigan has 3 games left, including arch rival CMU on the road next Tuesday, and Toledo this coming Saturday. WMU finishes against at home against Ball State one week from Sunday.
WESTERN MICHIGAN 56, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 49
WESTERN MICHIGAN (17-10, 10-3)
KOOL, David 7-20 0-1 16; HERSHBERGER, Andrew 5-6 4-5 14; REITZ, Joe 3-7 6-7
12; GARY, Shawntes 2-8 3-4 7; REDELL, Michael 1-2 0-0 3; FRACALOSSI, Derek
0-1 2-4 2; DREWS, Derek 1-4 0-0 2; LAWSON, Donald 0-1 0-0 0; McLEMORE,
Martelle 0-3 0-0 0; RICKS, Andre 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 19-56 15-21 56.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS (6-18, 3-9)
NICHOLS, Jarvis 6-14 1-1 16; GRAFEL, Egan 5-14 0-2 10; ANDERSON, Darion 3-10
2-3 8; RAND, Ben 1-4 2-2 4; LOGAN, Shaun 2-3 0-0 4; PATTON, Michael 1-5 0-0
3; HART, Michael 1-2 0-0 2; KELLEY, Bristan 1-3 0-0 2; LANDERS, Jeremy 0-2
0-0 0; SMITH, Sean 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-58 5-8 49.
Western Michigan.............. 17 39 - 56
Northern Illinois............. 22 27 - 49
With the MAC West wrapped up Western Michigan is aiming for an out and out MAC Title. To do that would likely guarantee a post season appearance regardless of the MAC Tourney outcome. Kent owns the tie breaker, so the Broncos are going to need a lot of outside help, and will likely have to win out themselves.
Hawkins has a tough balancing act as he finishes out the season. On one hand he wants to finish strong, but at the same time he doesn't want to go into Cleveland with tired legs.
I look for Hawkins to use his bench a bit more in this stretch, both for experience and to give his team a little rest. Between significant travel and an extra game sandwiched into the schedule, Hawk & Co. can't afford to expend too much energy in these last three games. Should be an interesting two weeks.