Rayson equaled NIU’s Aaric Armstead with a game-high 19 points, leading CMU in scoring for the second consecutive game. Stewart was nearly perfect for the game, shooting 5-of-6 from the field and 5-of-7 from the free throw line, to post 16 points to go along with a team-high six rebounds.
Chris Fowler added 15 points and eight assists and with three steals, giving him 51 for the year, moved into the top 10 of the CMU single season record book.
Central Michigan (10-16, 3-11 MAC) used Northern Illinois miscues to gain a key edge, forcing Northern Illinois into 18 turnovers, while committing just eight of its own, helping to offset a 37-22 deficit in rebounding.
“This was not a game that you have to win in rebounding, but you have to be close,” CMU head coach Keno Davis said. “Getting beat by 15 isn’t close, but I think we were able to win with turnovers; being able to create 18 and only have eight. I don’t know that I’ve had a team like this; that could have eight turnovers in a game that is that aggressive and then only six turnovers in a triple overtime game. I think it shows something about how our players are developing.”
CMU used the three ball to start fast and stake a first half lead. Six different Chippewas knocked down three-pointers, including one from John Simons at the 9:06 mark to produce a 21-17 advantage. Back-to-back buckets from Rayson, a fadeaway from 15 feet and a teardrop over NIU’s 6-9 center, then extended the CMU lead to eight at 25-17.
The Huskies chipped away at the deficit from the free throw line to pull within six at 27-21 but another Simons three-pointer with 2:44 remaining in the half ended the threat. NIU got four points from Darrell Bowie before the break while CMU countered with two from Zach Saylor, making the game 32-25 in favor of CMU at halftime.
A wild sequence of events early on in the second half helped Central build its largest lead of the game. After a basket by NIU center Jordan Threloff and two made free throws by Stewart, Rayson stole the ball from the Huskies and scored on a layup, getting fouled. After Rayson completed the three-point play, Blake Hibbitts stole the inbounds and found Stewart open for a layup, opening up a 39-27 CMU lead.
CMU never trailed in the second half, but Northern Illinois never went away. A Bowie three-point play at the 8:33 mark, cut the Chippewas lead to just four at 54-50 but Rayson came through in the clutch again, sinking a three-pointer to push the advantage back to seven points.
Just over five minutes later, with 3:15 remaining, NIU was back within four at 60-56, thanks to an Armstead triple, but CMU was able to respond again, this time getting a big three-pointer from Fowler.
Free throw shooting, which hindered CMU throughout the Ball State game and through much of the rematch with NIU, proved to be key down the stretch. Sophomore guard Rayshawn Simmons made five from the line at crunch time, including two with 21 seconds left to play and the Huskies within three points.
Still, a five-point, 70-65 lead was tenuous in the game’s final moments. Northern’s Aksel Bolin scored on a layup to make it a three-point game and then Travon Baker stole the inbounds pass. Daveon Balls missed a would-be game-tying three-pointer and Baker got the offensive rebound. But Fowler nearly stole the ball from Baker, knocking it out of bounds near mid-court with three seconds remaining. Bolin had one final look at the basket but good defense forced a poor three-point attempt, sending CMU to victory.
Northern Illinois (12-14, 6-8 MAC) got 14 points from Bowie, paired with Armstead’s 19, represented the Huskies only two double figure scorers. Threloff, who tipped in the game winner versus Eastern Michigan on Wednesday, had a game-high 10 rebounds despite leaving the game for a portion of the first half with an injury.
The Chippewas are on the road for rematches against two MAC West Division foes this week, starting on Wednesday when they meet Eastern Michigan (15-11, 7-6 MAC) in a 7 p.m. game at the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti. CMU will then travel to Muncie, Ind. for a Saturday 2 p.m. showdown with Ball State (4-20, 1-12 MAC).
Central Michigan men’s basketball is on Twitter. Follow head coach Keno Davis (@CoachKenoDavis) and the program’s official Twitter account (@CMUMensBBall) to get insider news and information and team updates. The Chippewas are also on Facebook at www.facebook.com/CMUMensBBall.