CEDAR FALLS — While hopes for a conference title remain strong with Northern Iowa players and coaches, Thursday’s Missouri Valley Conference opener showed just how much work the Panthers still have to do.

UNI scored just three points in the first 8 minutes, 51 seconds, and suffered critical defensive breakdowns in the second half in a 56-53 upset loss to short-handed Southern Illinois inside the McLeod Center.

Both offenses were missing in action early. Following a six minute scoreless stretch, the visiting Salukis clung to a 6-3 lead with 11:09 to play in the first half.

“It took us a long time to really get anything going on offense and unfortunately that just kind of set the mood for the entire night,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “I didn’t think we had enough bounce in our step, enough of an edge to us, considering we’re at home to open the conference season and we’ve got another big crowd. When those two things are missing, this can happen to you. And it did tonight.”

Tywhon Pickford was the only Panther in double figures, finishing with 13 points for a team that shot just 39 percent from the field.

Despite the offensive struggles, UNI was able to grab a 25-22 halftime lead, an advantage the Panthers extended to 35-30 on an Austin Phyfe layup with 15:31 to remaining in the second half.

But behind the outside shooting of Marcus Bartley, the Salukis found just enough rhythm to complete the come-from-behind upset — their first win at the McLeod Center and first victory in Cedar Falls since 2003.

Declared doubtful with a back injury going in, Bartley was cleared after a chiropractic appointment pregame. And despite being visibly hobbled, he went on a personal 9-0 run following the Phyfe basket, giving Southern Illinois an advantage it maintained the rest of the way.

Jacobson was particularly disappointed with the defensive effort on Bartley’s last two baskets, 3-point shots that came on back-to-back possessions thanks largely to blown assignments.

“That shouldn’t happen,” he said after his team gave up seven triples on 10 attempts in the second half. “As much as we struggled offensively, even if we take those two plays away, it’s at least a tie game with two minutes left, instead of being behind a possession or two. We still had our chances defensively. Our attention to detail wasn’t good enough.”

That wasn’t the case for Southern Illinois, which shut down Bennett Koch inside. Kavion Pippen, who led all scorers with 14 points, also spearheaded a sound defensive effort that allowed the Salukis to hold Koch to five points on 2-of-8 shooting.

Always reliable for a memorable quote, SIU Coach Barry Hinson, unsurprisingly, had a colorful way to explain Pippen’s success.

“Kavion has a really big butt,” Hinson said. “He’s got girth and it’s hard to move him around.”

Following a third consecutive loss, UNI is now hoping to reverse a recent trend in Valley play. Since 1993-94, only one team has won a league title after losing its conference opener.

Though far from a panic, Jacobson does expect to learn a lot about how this team responds to adversity in the coming days.

“I’m curious to see tomorrow how we snap back and start our preparation and how we do on the road,” Jacobson said. “I think we’ve got a good team and we’ve got a group of guys that really care. I think they’ll bounce back.”

Senior forward Klint Carlson expressed a similar sentiment, though with a much angrier tone.

“We have another game in three days, so I told the guys, ‘Think about this tonight, think about what we could have done better,’” said Carlson, who finished with eight points and a game-high 12 rebounds. “It really should make us angry about what just happened tonight.

“So we’ve got to let that fester and put a chip back on our shoulder. And then tomorrow when we wake up, we’ve got to think about it and come ready to work.”

MAN DOWN: One potential explanation for the poor offensive performance was an injury to sixth man Spencer Haldeman.

A 50 percent 3-point shooter, Haldeman was ruled out after sustaining a back injury in practice Wednesday.

Jacobson had no information on Haldeman’s availability for Sunday’s game at Bradley, but expects the injury to sideline him for at least an additional day or two.

“He was walking a little better tonight, not a lot better,” Jacobson said. “It doesn’t seem like, unless it changes a lot by tomorrow, that he would practice tomorrow.”

Though clearly wanting him back, Jacobson didn’t blame the outcome on the injury.

“We need him healthy, we want him on the floor,” he said. “We know what he brings to us. But that didn’t determine tonight’s game.”

Sunday’s game in Peoria, Ill., tips at 1 p.m.

SIU 56, UNI 53

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

Cook 35 4-7 0-1 2 4 1 9

Smithpeters 24 2-5 1-4 5 0 3 7

Lloyd 37 3-6 0-0 8 0 2 6

Fletcher 24 3-7 0-0 5 0 1 8

Pippen 31 6-12 2-4 5 1 4 14

Wiley 16 0-3 0-0 4 3 1 0

Bartley 24 4-7 0-1 4 2 1 12

Strandnieks 7 0-3 0-0 0 0 1 0

Gooch 2 0-1 0-01 0 0 0

Team 0

Totals 200 22-51 3-10 34 10 14 56

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

Carlson 40 3-10 2-4 12 2 4 8

Pickford 25 5-9 2-2 5 1 4 13

McCloud 30 3-7 0-0 2 2 2 7

Brown 32 2-8 1-1 0 2 1 5

Koch 22 2-8 1-1 8 0 2 5

McDermott 2 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0

Rhodes 2-8 0-0 0 0 0 5

W. Lohaus 25 3-8 0-0 6 0 0 8

Phyfe 15 1-2 0-0 1 0 1 2

Team 2

Totals 200 21-54 6-8 36 7 14 53

SIU 22 34 — 56

UNI 25 28 — 53

3-point goals—SIU 9-21 (Bartley 4-6, Smithpeters 2-4, Fletcher 2-4, Cook 1-3, Lloyd 0-2, Stradnieks 0-1, Gooch 0-1) UNI 5-20 (W. Lohaus 2-4, Pickford 1-4, McCloud 1-4, Rhodes 1-1, Brown 0-4, Carlson 0-3) Steals—SIU 3 (Cook 2, Smithpeters 1) UNI 4 (McCloud 2, Pickford 1, McDermott 1). Blocks — SIU 3 (Three with 1), UNI 1 (Carlson 1). Turnovers — SIU 9, UNI 10.

Officials—Stuart, Pollard, Grimshaw. Att.—4,933

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