CEDAR FALLS — The University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball team stood at a crossroads in its season at this point last week.
The discipline, defense and rebounding that had largely been present since the start of Missouri Valley Conference play didn’t surface enough during losses to Bradley and Drake that dropped UNI’s league record to 5-7.
With the odds of a bottom four conference finish and a return to Thursday’s play-in round of the MVC Tournament increasing, UNI quickly changed its course. The Panthers erupted for 16 3-pointers during a 77-64 win over Illinois State before traveling to Evansville and holding the Purple Aces without a field goal for a seven-minute stretch as they pulled away to secure another double-digit victory, 73-58, Sunday afternoon.
“I think that kind of flipped the switch for us,” UNI point guard AJ Green said of his team’s last two losses. “We knew if we wanted to achieve the goals that we have as a team we couldn’t play that way. We definitely had to clean things up a bit, and I think the last two games we’ve shown that we’ve done that. Now it’s just a matter of us keeping it going.”
UNI coach Ben Jacobson also felt this past week was a legitimate turning point.
“I give our guys a lot of credit for learning, and being able to individually and as a team take a look in the mirror,” Jacobson said. “I think the best thing that’s happened in the last two games is the overall response to the two games prior. It’s been great to see.”
Last week’s wins came despite another injury setback. Tywhon Pickford missed both games with a sore shoulder. He was evaluated by a doctor and the team trainer Friday, and Jacobson hoped to have a better feel for his status going into Monday’s practice.
More pressure has been placed on defense and the rebounding ability of guards AJ Green, Spencer Haldeman and Wyatt Lohaus in Pickford’s absence.
“That gets magnified when Ty’s not in,” Jacobson said. “Ty’s been a good defender for us, he’s been a great rebounder for us. It’s a matter of those guys taking on that challenge.”
The stakes continue to rise for UNI (12-15, 7-7 MVC) entering Wednesday’s 7 p.m. game at Missouri State (15-12, 9-5). The Panthers sit in a four-way tie for fourth place, while Missouri State is among a group of three teams two games ahead in a tie for first with four to play.
This could be the first time in league history a regular-season champion has finished with at least six losses.
“I can’t recall another time where the records have been this close,” Jacobson said.
UNI is the only team to defeat Missouri State over the past eight games. The Panthers knocked down 52.4 percent of their field goals during a 64-59 victory over MSU on Feb. 2 in the McLeod Center.
In addition to increased accuracy from the field, UNI has made at least 14 free throws in its last five wins.
“It’s so late in the season I think a lot of it gets down to energy level, shot making and things of that nature,” Missouri State coach Dana Ford said, addressing the quick rematch.
Missouri State has turned its games into a grind by decreasing the number of possessions with extended defense and false action early in the shot clock on offense.
“We’re going to be challenged, and most of the challenges are going to come with under 12 in the shot clock,” Jacobson said. “That’s different than a lot of games you play in. We’re going to have to work hard to be sharp because there’s going to be fewer possessions.”
Even with his team’s success, Ford still sees room for growth. MSU made just 4 of 7 free throws down the stretch and turned the ball over 15 times during Sunday’s eye-opening win at MVC leader Loyola.
“People are shooting too high of a percentage against us,” Ford said. “The points are low because the pace is slow, but we’ve got to figure out a way to get people not to shoot such a high percentage against us – especially from 2 right now – so we’ll have to tinker with a couple things.”