CEDAR FALLS — Still alone in last place in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team knows it still has a ways to go before it can consider the corner turned this season.

But if Tuesday’s performance was any indication, the trip is starting to get less arduous.

Bennett Koch had a game-high 19 points, Tywhon Pickford had his fifth double-double, and the Panthers stormed back from an early 16-point deficit to top Valley leader Drake 68-54 at the McLeod Center.

The game had all the trapping of a first-place vs. last-place game early as the Bulldogs, the Valley’s No. 1 scoring team, put together a 16-0 run, hitting four 3s while holding UNI scoreless for 6:27 in the process.

“Obviously we were in quite a bit of trouble the way they’ve been playing,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “To dig that kind of hole against those guys, obviously it didn’t look good at that point. “

But the Panthers quickly turned up the defensive pressure, keeping Drake off the scoreboard for the final 6:49 of the first half. The offense found its rhythm in the process as Spencer Haldeman kick-started a 13-0 half-closing run with a 3-pointer, then ended it with a runner just before the first-half buzzer.

The dominant charge continued throughout the second half. Koch gave UNI its first lead in some time with a hook shot at the 16:09 mark, and Klint Carlson put the Panthers ahead for good with a basket 2:08 later.

After a poor start, the defense clamped down, particularly at the 3-point line. After starting 4 of 6, the Bulldogs were just 4 of 17 from behind the arc the rest of the way.

“Teams go on runs. That’s the game of basketball,” said Pickford, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. “We didn’t get down on each other. We just came together and told ourselves we need to keep playing and competing, get some stops on defense and then work some things on offense.”

Haldeman added 12 points for UNI, while Carlson was also in double figures with 10.

The last team to win an MVC game, the Panthers have now put together consecutive victories in a conference race that’s getting more cluttered by the day. Though just 2-5, UNI is now just three games out of first.

And though they know the challenge in front of them, Panther players feel they are at least getting back on track after a promising start to the season.

“I don’t think we’re at the level where we were earlier in the season,” Koch said. “There’s still room to improve. But we’re all pretty happy with this win tonight.”

REDEMPTION: Over the last 72 hours, Koch’s standing with the team began looking a bit murky.

UNI’s leading scorer, he was surprisingly benched in favor of freshman Austin Phyfe on Saturday and proceeded to struggle, scoring just two points in nine minutes. Phyfe, in his absence, thrived in the starting role, scoring 20 points and grabbing eight boards.

Though admitting he was disappointed with the decision, Koch says he had no choice but to accept the coaching staff’s decision.

“If I were to just lay down and roll over and give up on the team, I think that would be pretty selfish of me,” Koch said. “I saw it as a challenge to bounce back and play the best I can play. I know the team needs me. I’ve been in this position before.”

So after Phyfe picked up two early fouls Tuesday, Koch responded in the way Jacobson and his staff hoped, dominating in the post and sparking a 42-point second half for UNI.

“I’m tremendously proud of him,” Jacobson said. “To get taken out of it is tough. For him to be able to bounce back ... it says a ton about the kid.”

Koch and Haldeman worked their way from the second unit to the first in the second half, as Jacobson went with virtually the same lineup the entire way. Aside from subbing Wyatt Lohaus in for Koch for one 36-second stretch, the lineup of Koch, Haldeman, Carlson, Pickford and Isaiah Brown played the entire second half.

Saying he simply liked the way that unit was playing, Jacobson doesn’t plan to make any full-scale changes when his team travels to Southern Illinois Sunday.

“Phyfe’s going to start on Sunday, Jacobson said. “Juwan (McCloud) will be starting at the point.”

Sunday’s game in Carbondale tips at 3 p.m.

UNI 68, Drake 54Drake Mn FG-A FT-A Rb As PF TP

Rivers 28 2-2 0-0 8 4 1 4

McMurray 32 1-12 0-0 3 2 1 3

Timmer 33 6-11 4-5 4 4 1 19

Arogundade 20 0-2 0-0 1 4 3 0

McGlynn 26 6-10 0-0 3 0 4 13

Gibbs 11 0-2 0-0 1 1 0 0

Woodward 26 2-7 0-0 1 0 3 6

Thomas 9 1-1 0-0 0 1 0 3

Schlatter 12 3-4 0-0 2 0 2 6

Kuenstling 3 0-0 0-0 0 0 3 0

Team 0

Totals 200 21-52 4-5 23 16 18 54

UNI Mn FG-A FT-A Rb As PF TP

Carlson 40 4-9 2-3 8 1 1 10

Pickford 39 6-9 1-1 10 2 0 16

McCloud 10 0-2 0-0 1 1 0 0

Brown 37 2-7 2-2 2 2 3 7

Phyfe 4 1-1 0-0 1 1 2 2

Koch 30 7-11 5-6 5 2 3 19

Haldeman 30 4-9 2-2 4 1 1 12

W. Lohaus 10 1-3 0-0 1 0 0 2

Team 2

Totals 200 25-51 12-14 34 10 10 68

Drake 29 25 — 54

N. Iowa 26 42 — 68

3-point goals—Drake 8-23 (Timmer 3-7, Woodward 2-4, McMurray 1-6, McGlynn 1-1, Thomas 1-1, Arogundade 0-2) UNI 6-15 (Pickford 3-4, Haldeman 2-4, Brown 1-4, Carlson 0-1, McCloud 0-1, W. Lohaus 0-1) Steals—Drake 5 (Rivers 2, McMurray 2, Woodard 1) UNI 3 (Brown 2, Pickford 1). Blocks — Drake 1 (McGlynn), UNI 1 (Koch). Turnovers — Drake 11, UNI 12.

Officials—Self, Kissinger, Janssen. Att.—3,880

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