And it was a down crowd, having just watched the UW football team’s Las Vegas Bowl defeat on the overhead video board.
The unusual environment led to an unusual game, but Washington managed to survive with a 67-57 win.
“It would have been great if we had a big crowd, but we knew we had to dial in,” senior guard Abdul Gaddy said. “The main thing we were trying to focus on was not looking ahead to Christmas break and stuff like that. We knew we wanted to come out and play 40 minutes hard and just come out with the win.”
The hustle stats say Washington played hard. They outrebounded the visitors 42-30 — including 22 offensive rebounds. They forced 14 turnovers, had four blocks and limited NIU to 39 percent shooting from the floor. They concentrated well enough to hit 91.7 percent of their foul shots.
But shooting from the floor was a different story, with Washington hitting a season-low 31.6 percent.
“I can’t remember a game where we shot 31 percent from the field,” coach Lorenzo Romar said. “That hadn’t been a pattern for this team. ... Tonight, all of a sudden, with a lot of open looks, the ball didn’t go down. Thank goodness our free throws did. I don’t know if that was a carry over to other areas of the game. We didn’t have 20 turnovers, but our turnovers led to points for them and made it a little easier for them to get buckets at times.”
UW announced 7,805 tickets distributed for the game, but notably fewer spectators were actually in the arena. Playing before that small and distracted crowd, Washington got off to a predictably slow start.
The teams were knotted at 10-10 before UW finally got some separation with an 11-2 run midway through the first half.
It seemed that might open the floodgates against an NIU team that had been trounced by Seattle University 75-48 on Wednesday.
But on Saturday, NIU (2-9) stabilized instead. They trailed 36-25 at halftime, hung around through most of the second half and then made a late run that cut Washington’s lead to six points with about two minutes remaining, 63-57.
However, those were their final points, as Washington hit four free throws down the stretch to settle it.
“We got lackadaisical at times,” Gaddy said. “We had a little lull where they were getting offensive rebounds and we didn’t know where our man was at. They hit a couple of threes — stuff on our part.”
Washington was led by C.J. Wilcox, who had 22 points. Aziz N’Diaye contributed 12 points and 13 rebounds.
“C.J. has really improved in all areas of the game,” Romar said. “He’s not just one-dimensional. ... (N’Diaye has become) a better offensive player. He takes his time a little more. ... I thought he made big strides tonight when he was being double-teamed.”
Abdel Nader led Northern Illinois with 18 points off the bench.
“(Nader) kept us in the ball game, and he got some other guys in it,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “This was a successful trip, even though we came out 0-2, we definitely got better as a team. ... It is just unfortunate we ran into a better team.”
It was Washington’s fourth straight win and raised their season record to 8-4. UW will conclude non-conference play Saturday at Connecticut.
“We’ve played Ohio State, so we’ve seen the better teams in the country,” Wilcox said. “As long as we’re dialed in, I feel we can hang with anybody.”
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