Good news: Rockets played their best game of the yearWritten by Matt Sussman | | email@example.com
Bad news: they still lost by four points.
Sadly, that drops their record to 3-15, 0-4 in the MAC, and makes them losers of eight straight games. These are all saddening statistics, but there’s more to Wednesday’s 58-54 loss to Northern Illinois than meets the eye:
• That was the best nine minutes they’ve played all year. Right out of the gate, UT played inspired and unstoppable. They defended well, hit shots, and moved the ball around. It’s too bad the 16-5 lead they built didn’t last; seven minutes later, NIU tied the game.
• Griffin and Freelove are professional drivers. Do not attempt. Two guys who didn’t play much to start the year are starting to realize their roles. Freshman guards Malcolm Griffin and Josh Freelove are both excellent ball handlers, and more importantly, both know how to drive the lane. Griffin had his third straight game with double-digit points (13), while Freelove had a career-high 11. But it was how they scored that was impressive. Combined, 18 of their 24 points were “in the paint,” either by laying it up in transition or creating space with a short jumper. By comparison, the entire Huskies team had 14 points in the paint. But behind every rookie professional driver lies some fender benders: Griffin had six turnovers and would occasionally make the most puzzling pass to nobody.
• There are other types of shots besides three-point shots. Jake Barnett was 2-for-10 from behind the line. Justin Anyijong was 1-for-7. Many of these attempts were ill-advised and “settled for.” Conversely, Barnett and Anyijong took only six two-point attempts between them. They may not know this, but the closer they are to the basket, the less distance through the air the ball has to travel. Sounds like an easier way to score to me.
• At least they were alert when the shots were missed. While rebounding — or the absence thereof — was killing them in recent games, the Rockets drew even on the boards with NIU as each team grabbed 37. Anyijong brought down 11 by himself. Everyone boxed out. They leaped high and tipped it to their teammates. They chased down long caroms. They were in good position. It was one of the most refreshing signs that the team is playing looser and smarter.
• But, in the end, they were simply outmatched. This might be NIU’s year in basketball. Wednesday night’s win put them at 4-0 in the MAC for the first time in their school’s history. Colorado transfer Xavier Silas is one of the conference’s top scorers, and in NIU’s six-game winning streak, this is the closest they’ve come to defeat. They were picked second to win the MAC West, but they might surpass that.
The Rockets may be 3-15, but remember: there are no seniors on this team. As a result, the learning curve for them is much steeper than any square inch of land in Northwest Ohio. But they are improving … noticeably.