DEKALB, Ill. - The message was impossible to miss: "Forward, Together Forward," read the banner hanging outside the arena.
A line in Northern Illinois' fight song, it's now a mantra for a school and community still recovering.
NIU took another small step Tuesday night, when it hosted Western Michigan in the first athletic event on campus since a gunman killed five students in a lecture hall before taking his own life on Feb. 14.
For the record, Western Michigan won 56-49 behind a 16-point effort from David Kool. But this clearly wasn't an ordinary game.
"It should serve as some therapy for all of us," NIU coach Ricardo Patton said.
The teams gathered arm-in-arm in a circle at midcourt while observing a moment of silence before the game. Then, they shook hands and stood at opposite foul lines as the NIU alma mater and the Star Spangled banner played.
Western Michigan (17-10, 10-3) is trying to capture the Mid-America Conference championship. NIU (6-18, 3-9) is simply seeking some semblance of normalcy.
"We felt like coming out here, playing hard and trying to get the win would help," Huskies guard Darion Anderson said.
Banners hanging from the arena's rafters commemorate various championships and postseason appearances, but on some level, a more meaningful game has never been played by an NIU team — even if only 2,032 fans witnessed it.
Northern Illinois players and coaches wore ribbons, as did many in the crowd, while Western Michigan paid tribute with NIU patches.
The game itself was rather sluggish, but a bouncing ball was a welcome site in an arena that just two nights earlier hosted an emotional rally. A subdued crowd perked up when the Huskies went on a 7-0 run to grab a 44-38 lead with about five minutes left in the game, but Western Michigan answered.
"We certainly wanted to write a different story for you guys," Patton said. "We thought we could write a little different headline for you."
Although Patton thought the teams were "pretty competitive," Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins acknowledged his "competitive juices weren't there."
"I couldn't even yell at the referees the way I wanted," he said.
And Jarvis Nichols, who led NIU with 16 points, added he had trouble focusing.
"At the beginning, it was a little weird," he said.
Makes sense, considering NIU is in the early stages of a much more serious comeback on this rural campus 65 miles west of Chicago.
The crime scene tape that hung outside the closed Cole Hall, site of the massacre, was gone late Tuesday afternoon, but there were plenty of reminders of the Valentine's Day rampage.
On one set of doors hung two large ribbons — one with a newspaper clipping showing pictures of the victims. The other had the date "02-14-08" and the word "remember," and a bouquet of flowers was jammed between two door handles.
On a small knoll on the other side of the building, roses that people left jutted out from the snow and a sign leaning against a lamp post offered these words of encouragement: "Together we will prevail ... We are NIU."
Underneath two tents in a nearby courtyard were eight large boards jammed with messages, with prayers.
Ribbons adorned six wood crosses on the lawn outside the Lutheran Campus Ministry across from campus, on one of the town's main drags — Normal Road. Its an easy street to find, but defining "normal" is a little tougher these days.
When classes resumed on Monday, counselors were in rooms offering to help students.
Although no athletes were killed or injured, a men's soccer player was in the room when the shots started. And everyone was shaken.
Some athletes, including a few who were on the court Tuesday, have class in Cole Hall. Huskies senior Shaun Logan was in that room earlier in the day for film analysis, and a friend of guard Michael Patton — the coach's son — escaped the shootings.
"If we can use basketball as a medium to get back to normal and get things the way they were going before a terrible tragedy like this happened, then I think that's really the only issue here," said Western Michigan's Joe Reitz, who had 15 rebounds.
On Tuesday, players and fans tried to use basketball to escape those awful memories — for a few hours, anyway. But when it was over, coach Patton couldn't help but think about those who lost loved ones.
"To me, this is still about the families," he said. "It's not about the team. My heart goes out to the parents and the loved ones that they lost. That's what's most difficult."