This was eight days ago. That afternoon, his Northern Illinois men’s basketball team had played Eastern Michigan. Montgomery, in his second season as the Huskies’ coach after spending 10 years working for Tom Izzo at Michigan State, had gone into the game feeling about as good as he had felt since taking the NIU job.
The Huskies were coming off a win at Central Michigan, and Montgomery was looking forward to playing another game in his home state — about 20 miles, to be exact, from Inkster, his home town.
And then it all went wrong. The final score — Eastern Michigan 42, Northern Illinois 25 — was bad. But it only told a small part of the story.
The Huskies led, 2-0, after Abdel Nader scored on a fast-break layup one minute in. That was their last field goal of the half. Their offense for the next 19 minutes consisted of two made free throws. Remarkably, they only trailed 18-4 at halftime.
“That was the funny thing about it,” Montgomery said. “We did a lot of good things in the game. We got more shots than they did, we killed them on the offensive glass [23-7], we had fewer turnovers. We just could not get a shot to go in. It didn’t matter where we shot from, the ball just wasn’t going to go in.”
The four points NIU scored in the first half set an NCAA record for fewest points in a half since the shot-clock era began in 1985. Unfortunately, the previous record (five points) had been set just eight weeks earlier — by NIU in a game at Dayton.
“We are definitely a team that lives on making shots from the perimeter,” Montgomery said. “Or dies on missing them. When we die, we really die.”
When he left the security of Izzo’s program after being a part of three Final Four teams, Montgomery knew there would be tough days as he rebuilt the NIU program. But not days like this. The Huskies were 5-26 a year ago. Since 1973, they have had eight coaches; only one, Jim Molinari, left with a winning record. That was 22 years ago. This year’s team has seven freshmen, three sophomores and two juniors.
“Before I took the job, Coach Izzo told me it would be the third or fourth year before I’d be judged and before I could really hope to see progress in the won-lost record,” Montgomery said. He laughed. “After the game at EMU, he called me, because that’s when your best friends call, and he said, ‘I told you: third or fourth year, don’t forget that.’ I told him I remembered but this one was like a punch in the face.”
Montgomery knew his players were hurting. He gave them the day off Sunday the way he normally does and came into his office to force himself to look at the tape. That was when he began to see some light at the end of the four-points-in-20-minute tunnel.