The bus ride from Ypsilanti, Mich., to DeKalb, Ill., takes about five hours. For a basketball coach, the best way to spend the ride home — especially after a loss — is to make full use of today’s technology and go through game footage.
Mark Montgomery just couldn’t do it. It was just too soon, the feelings were a little too raw. So, like his assistant coaches and his players, he sat in silence trying very hard to not think about what had just happened.
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.
“I looked up early in the afternoon and I saw the entire team had come in on their own to shoot,” he said. “They weren’t required to do anything all day and they had organized themselves to get in and shoot. That told me that I really didn’t need to give them any kind of a speech on Monday. They had figured it out themselves.”
The next day, Montgomery told his players what he had seen on tape. “You outplayed them,” he said. “I can’t ask you to play harder than you did. We just need some shots to go in.”
After the debacle in Ypsilanti, Montgomery’s team was the butt of sportstalk jokes from around the country. Through it all, he kept his sense of humor. “We did hear a lot about it on campus, which is understandable,” he said. “All of a sudden, the whole country is talking about your basketball team but not for the reasons that you want.
“I told the student newspaper that my goal for Wednesday would be to get to five points before halftime because that would be an improvement.”
They actually got to nine in less than three minutes Wednesday against Kent State, beginning the game on a 9-0 run. All of a sudden, the boulder that had been sitting on everyone’s chest since the weekend was gone. “You know the old saying: Shooting is contagious — both ways,” Montgomery said. “Once we made a few shots in the game, we were able to start being the team I’ve believed we can be.”
The Huskies led most of the night and looked as if they were going to cruise to a win. But being capable of winning is one step, finishing off wins is another. Up nine in the final three minutes, they tightened and Kent State pulled even at 65 with less than 30 seconds to go. And so, after shooting effectively most of the night — 7 of 13 from three-point range — NIU needed to make one more shot in order to go home happy.
The ball swung to Nader, the team’s leading scorer. He went up to shoot with 2.2 seconds left and — just like in the movies — the shot swished. Four days after hitting bottom, NIU celebrated.
“I heard a lot after the game at Eastern Michigan that people thought I might have lost the team because the numbers were so brutal,” Montgomery said. “Those kids proved who they are, not only with the way we played the game, but with the way we prepared for the game.
“Given what happened, it was a very special night.”
Montgomery knows there is still a long way to go, as the Huskies are just 5-15 after Saturday’s 69-64 loss to Toledo. But four days after the miserable bus ride home at the end of a nightmarish afternoon, he could walk out into a cold winter night with a smile on his face.
For more by John Feinstein, visit www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein