Monmouth Shocks Northern Illinois After Spence Buzzer Beater
WEST LONG BRANCH-- Northern Illinois (5-4) seemed to be waltzing on their way to victory for the majority of the first half before Monmouth (5-4) caught lightning in a bottle capped off by a buzzer beater from the hands of No. 3 Jakari Spence.
The Hawks came into the matchup against the Huskies after a ten-day off period, looking to continue their upward trajectory.
Monmouth got off to a quick start, going on a 12-6 run forcing the hand of Northern Illinois to use a timeout. Monmouth's Nikita Konstantynovskyi caught fire early, leading with 6 of his team-high 16 points inside the run.
"Every game I come in with a tough mindset," Konstantynovskyi said. "I was aggressive from the jump and I love having the ball in my hands. I continue to trust the process and work each day."
Things seemed to go haywire for the Hawks. Within a split second, the Huskies went on a 27-2 run and took a 19-point lead with 6:27 in the first half. Coach Rice knew that there were adjustments to be made in order to have a fighting chance.
"We stopped trapping their guard and we knew that we'd be able to take advantage of that on defense," Rice said in reference to Northern Illinois' Zarique Nutter. "When they punch you in the face, just keep playing. So much credit to them. That's a talented program over there. I have all the respect in the world for them."
Slowly but surely, the Hawks were able to chip away at the lead. With 3:22 left in the first half, the Hawks were able to cut the deficit to 15 largely in part to Jakari Spence's 6 points inside the run.
Coming into the week, Coach Rice didn't know if the Toms River North graduate would suit up due to his grandmother Cleo passing away earlier in the week.
"I truly didn't know if he was going to play," Rice said. "He let me know he said 'coach, coach, I'm playing this game. I want to be out there.' So all the credit goes out to him and his grandmother was watching the entire time."
The adjustments continued to kick in and the chemistry continued to come together as the Hawks have done throughout the season. Entering halftime, the Hawks saw themselves down 12 and having a fighting chance.
Konstantynovskyi continued to dominate coming into the second half, getting a crucial layup early for the Hawks. Monmouth's Xander Rice followed up the bucket with his second three-pointer of the game, ultimately bringing the Northern Illinois lead down to 7.
After seeing what was once a 19-point lead dissipate down to 3, Monmouth knew they had to stay settled in and continue playing the basketball they were playing down the stretch.
"I think today all of our guys did an incredible job," Rice said. "Jakari, Spinelli, Abdi, all of them. Everybody was a difference maker on the court, but that being said, we still need our younger guys to still grow up. This isn't all about basketball, it's about everything."
Northern Illinois took control of the game for about three minutes late in the second half, going on an 8-1 run and seeing themselves with a 60-51 lead with 7:30 to play. This is when freshman Abdi Bashir stepped in and called his own game.
Bashir came through at the most crucial of times, delivering with back-to-back three pointers and bringing the lead down to three with 6:27 left to play.
"Abdi is one of the best shooters we got," Rice said. "This kid makes his shots all day long. I got a little upset with him. We had some things happen this week with school. We need these young dudes to grow up and understand we’re not just doing hoop here."
Northern Illinois found themselves at the line for three straight possessions, missing 5 of the 6 free throws awarded to the Huskies. The Hawks crashed the boards and found another basket before Bashir came back and delivered his third consecutive three-pointer, giving the Hawks their first lead since early in the first half.
The momentum continued to favor the Hawks, going on a 15-4 run over a five-minute stretch, giving Monmouth a three-point lead with 3:42 to play.
The Huskies called timeout to regather and it paid off. The Huskies took three straight baskets to the rim and regained a three-point lead with 1:19 left in the game. Coach Rice called timeout, talking strategy over with the team.
Out of the timeout, the Hawks looked for an opening and found Rice for a game-tying three with under a minute to play. The Huskies found their man Xavier Amos, coming up huge with a fadeaway mid-ranger to retake the lead at 71-69.
With 19.2 to play, Konstantynovskyi drew a foul and found himself at the line for two shots and a chance to tie the game up. Like he did all game, Konstantynovskyi delivered by making both.
The Huskies took the ball up the court with an opportunity to win the game. With 5 seconds left, the Hawks forced a turnover and Jaret Valencia got the ball into the hands of Spence.
Spence found himself with the ball in his hand at the biggest moment and came through, banking a 30-foot three for the win. With the largest opportunity all in the hands of Spence, he came through with his lone three-pointer when it mattered most.
"That was for my grandma," Spence said. "My dad told me to come out here today and do it for her. When the ball left my hands, I just knew it was going in."
Spence ended with 9 points on the day, with his only three coming at the sound of the buzzer.
"I feel like I'm really built for this moment," Spence said. "This comes down to levels of training at the gym everyday. You'll see me matched up with their best guys and coach has a lot of trust in me to be able to be in those situations."
The heroics of Spence brought the Hawks back to over .500, one win shy of their total from a season ago. The Hawks find themselves on the road on Tuesday at Seton Hall, looking to run with the momentum garnered from their victory today. The Hawks move to 5-4 on the season, handing non-conference play with a strong mindset everyday.