With March upon us every basketball coach in America is looking for great defensive performances from their teams, after all, "defense wins championships."
Great defense is exactly what NIU women's basketball Head Coach Carol Hammerle got from her Huskies Saturday afternoon in a 56-41 win over the UB Bulls in the first round of the MAC Tournament. Northern Illinois will play the No. 3 seeded Toledo Rockets in the tournament quarterfinals at Cleveland's Gund Arena Wednesday. The loss ends a disappointing rebuilding year for the UB program.
It was not a strong offensive showing that sent the Huskies to Cleveland for the second round of the tournament. In the dreaded Chick Evans Field House, NIU held UB's women to a 30.4 shooting percentage from the field, while the Huskies shot 40 percent.
"The one stat that jumps out is turnovers," said UB Head Coach Cheryl Dozier in a press conference after the game.
And oh boy did Buffalo have a lot of turnovers. The Bulls gave up the ball 26 times, 17 on Huskie steals. NIU scored 25 points off of Buffalo's turnovers.
"Thank God for defense," said Hammerle. "That's certainly what were about, our ball pressure was tremendous and we really made it difficult for Buffalo to run any part of their offense."
The Bulls started the game strong by scoring the first five points behind a Kate McMeeken-Ruscoe jumper and an Erin Lawerenson 3-pointer. UB did it without Kim Kilpela who reinjured her ankle during the Huskies first possession.
However, the Bulls' offensive woes of this season came into effect after they failed to score for a period of nearly six minutes until two free throws by Jessica Kochendorfer. During this drought NIU went on a 13-2 run to make the score 13-7 at the 9:38 mark. The Bulls went nine minutes without scoring a field goal before a Lawerenson 17-foot jumper.
With the win, NIU thoroughly avenged their 50-39 loss to the Bulls on Jan. 23, a game that saw the Huskies score a season-low 39 points. Their 22.7 field goal percentage for the game was the worst performance by a Huskie team in 14 years.
"Their defense was much more up in our face today than the last time we played them, and we just didn't take care of the ball," said Dozier.
"I felt last time we played Buffalo our offense was really stagnant, so we focused on that this week, and we really worked hard on attacking their zone today," Hammerle added.
Kochendorfer brought the Bulls within six late in the first half with a 17-foot jumper, but this would be the closest UB would come for the rest of the game. NIU went into the half with a 30-22 advantage, and led by as many as 17 in the second half on their way to the 15-point win.
Jennifer Youngblood had 14 points and nine rebounds to lead the Huskies. Her teammate Lindsay Secrest trailed with 13 points and added four steals. NIU had a well-balanced scoring attack with their bench accounting for 29 points.
Kochendorfer had a team-high 13 points and 13 rebounds, her seventh double-double of the year. Lawerenson and McMeeken-Ruscoe also finished in double digits with 12 and 10 points respectively. UB's Rachel Martin did a solid job of replacing Kim Kilpela by grabbing career-high 14 rebounds.
Dozier could not solve the Bulls' turnover problems this season, but did manage to get her club to play hard over their final few games.
"NIU plays great defense here, and we didn't handle the ball well today," said Dozier. "That's what lost the game for us. I was extremely pleased with the effort and the effort has been there all year, no doubt about it."