Chicago State found itself in a huge hole before starting a grand comeback late in the second half. The Cougars came up just short as they fell by six points, 99-93 to Northern Illinois on Wednesday at the Jones Convocation Center.
The blisteringly fast pace allowed a number of players to reach double-figures. NIU's Xavier Silas led all players with 24 points - 21 of which he scored during the first half when the Huskies took a 50-30 lead.
After a number of three-point shots by Mike DiNunno went down, NIU appeared to be in control against a young Chicago State team, but the Cougars had their best shooting half of the season and scored 63 points in the second 20 minutes to almost pull off the miraculous comeback.
Carl Montgomery finished with 22 points and 9 rebounds for the Cougars. Christian Wall scored 23 points and had 6 assists and 4 turnovers, while Jonathan Montgomery added 19 points. Freshman Victor Scott was also in double figures for Chicago State with 13.
Early in the game head coach Benjy Taylor removed Carl Montgomery for what he thought was a lack of intensity, but Montgomery certainly got after it in the second half. He had one of his best games of the season going 9-16 from the floor and 4-5 from the free throw line. He also had 3 assists, but 3 turnovers.
"We're feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves right now and it's just not good for us," Taylor said. "I took him back out and once I put him back in there he was better."
Chicago State turned the ball over 12 times in the first half and committed 11 personal fouls in an ugly 20 minutes of basketball. The defense also struggled as Silas scored 21 and Sean Kowal added 8 points off the bench. Early in the second half things looked much the same, but then something seemed to click inside of the Cougars and players besides Carl Montgomery began to step up. After going 1-7 from beyond the arc in the first half, the Cougars were 8-15 from distance in the second and had 13 assists compared to 4 turnovers.
"We're a young, immature group," Taylor said. "We have to get better in every practice and every game. It is going to be important now that we just put it all together going into conference and try to finish in the top half of that league."
Wednesday's game was Chicago State's final test before beginning Great West conference play against Utah Valley on Saturday. The positive second half seems like a good step in preparing the Cougars for a difficult game against the Wolverines.
"I like our team, I like our chances," Taylor said. "But Carl's really the only one with any experience and we play like that sometimes."
One of the bright spots could be Jonathan Montgomery. After sitting out a transfer season he has been slowly working his way back into the lineup. Jonathan Montgomery started slow in the first half going 0-3, but he roared back in the second with all 19 of his points on 7-11 shooting.
"Jon's fine. Sitting out is tough," Taylor said. "When you're a scorer like that and you first come back and your shot isn't falling then you have a tendency to get down on yourself. But I just keep telling him to shoot till he misses. ... He'll be fine."
Another sign of possible things to come? The Cougars had 85 possessions against the Huskies. It was a fast game. These types of games allow the athleticism of Chicago State to come to the forefront and can lead to runs like the one in the second half.
While coach Taylor liked the pace, he wants his team to play smarter, like they did in the second half.
If the Cougars can carry that momentum into conference season they might be able to make some noise in the Great West Tournament come March.