CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson enters the final week of the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball regular season in uncharted territory.
UNI (13-15, 5-11) travels to Valparaiso (14-15, 5-11) for today’s 8 p.m. game still searching for a true road win. The two teams are tied for last in the league standings.
A UNI program that has finished no worse than tied for fifth in Jacobson’s previous 11 seasons is locked into the opening-round play-in portion of the MVC Tournament for the first time since 2003.
Despite losing a seventh conference game in which his team entered intermission either tied or with a lead, Jacobson felt his players figured some things out during Saturday’s 79-75 defeat at Illinois State.
In particular, senior Klint Carlson scored 20 points by making adjustments against the Redbirds’ zone. A variety of Panthers converted shots at key moments — including freshman Tywhon Pickford and sophomore Spencer Haldeman — to keep pace with an opponent that shot an unconscious 11 of 14 from distance over the final 20 minutes.
“Our guys figured some things out on their own and made some plays when they had to, and I think that’s the most important thing,” Jacobson said Monday at his weekly press conference.
Identical to UNI, Valparaiso is 0-8 on the road and 5-3 at home during league play. Reserve Markus Golder has shot 60 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range over the last five contests, averaging 14.4 points and four rebounds during that stretch.
“They’ve continued to stay together, they continue to play really hard and they’ve been really competitive in their games,” Jacobson said.
During UNI’s 81-76 win over Valparaiso in Cedar Falls, the Panthers led by as many as 23 in the second half before the Crusaders rallied late with 3-pointers setting up opportunities off the drive.
Singling out past losses at Indiana State and Bradley, Jacobson noted scouting report mistakes and transition defense has been cleaned up during the second half of recent games.
“We’re not far off it,” Jacobson added. “We’re close. Obviously it’s late in the year and we shouldn’t be close. We should have already had it figured out a while back. I get that. Our guys understand that. That’s frustrating for everybody.
“But as long as there’s another game to play, I’m going to keep encouraging the guys to work hard to get on the same page. Work hard to dig in and figure stuff out at certain points of a basketball game when you just have to make some plays. Illinois State was a good start to that.”
Through a disappointing season, UNI’s players remain engaged
“We’ve got to work harder than everybody else,” Carlson said after Saturday’s loss. “We’ve still got five or six practices before the (MVC) tournament so we’ve got to make great use of our time to get better.”
MCCLOUD REMAINS OUT: Jacobson noted Monday that Juwan McCloud will likely miss his third consecutive game with a back injury tonight before hopefully returning to practice in advance of Saturday’s finale with Missouri State.
The Panthers’ coach likes what he’s seen out of senior Hunter Rhodes during his previous two starts at the point and through extended minutes over the past couple weeks.
“I feel like he’s played well and I think he’s still got more in the tank,” Jacobson said. “I think he can be a little bit more aggressive offensively. He can look for his jump shot more.”
SENIOR SENDOFF: UNI is offering a $5 ticket promotion for Saturday’s 1 p.m. home finale against Missouri State. It will mark the final game inside the McLeod Center for seniors Carlson, Bennett Koch, Ted Friedman, Rhodes and Rafael de Souza.
“These guys understand what it takes to win in St. Louis,” Jacobson said. “They understand what it takes to get it done. I’m looking forward to that part of it this week, and then taking these guys to St. Louis. We’ve got a good enough team.”