CEDAR FALLS -- The rims inside the McLeod Center began expanding to the point where Northern Iowa's struggling shooters may have felt like they were tossing the ball into the Grand Canyon Wednesday night.
Still, this UNI team is searching to find more answers with just two games remaining before the start of Missouri Valley Conference play.
Grand Canyon University took advantage of late offensive rebounds and turnovers as first team preseason all-conference forward Alessandro Lever made key plays down the stretch to secure a 73-62 road win over the Panthers.
Grand Canyon (6-5) was forced to go to a nine-man rotation after 6-foot-10 forward Michael Finke suffered a foot injury in the team's loss to Texas on Saturday. Lever picked up the slack, pacing the Antelopes with 17 points and making 9 of 10 free throws for a team that went 15 of 21 from the stripe and sealed the win at the line.
"Their ability to throw it inside to (Lever) late, that was a problem for us," UNI coach Ben Jacobson said.
Freshman AJ Green led UNI (4-7) with a career-high 27 points, knocking down 5 of 8 3-pointers for a team that finished 11 of 21 from distance. Senior guard Wyatt Lohaus matched his season-high against a Division I opponent with 15 points and three 3-pointers, while shooting 5-for-9 from the field.
"It's frustrating because we've worked so hard and put in so much time that you never want to lose," Lohaus said, after his team dropped its fifth consecutive game to a DI opponent. "To have the kind of results we've had over the last few weeks is definitely frustrating, but at the same we've made strides.
"At times it hasn't been as fast as we want, but we are making strides and we are putting in the work that when the time comes it's going to push us over the hump."
Lohaus and junior Isaiah Brown were taken out of the starting lineup after Jacobson announced to his team Monday that they needed to switch some things up. Both veterans remained engaged throughout the practice.
"We made a change in the starting lineup and I thought Isaiah and Wyatt, the guys who moved out of the starting lineup, the way they practiced yesterday was terrific," Jacobson related. "I said, 'Look, you've just got to trust us. You've got to trust that we're searching for some different combinations.'
"We're going to keep doing that. I don't know what that means for Saturday (against North Dakota), but we're going to keep searching for the right combinations."
As has been a theme during this UNI losing streak, Grand Canyon used a 13-2 run to take a 21-9 advantage with the Panthers going scoreless for a 7-minute stretch in the first half. Still, the game was at a manageable halftime margin, 29-21, thanks to UNI's defense.
In the second half, Green came to life and helped his team overcome a 14-point deficit. The talented point guard hit a pair of pull-up jumpers and a contested 3-pointer during a personal eight-point run before knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers for a 50-49 lead with 6:58 remaining.
"It's fun when things are going our way like that," Green said. "We had momentum going. We're just going to have to continue to work and try to find a way where we can have that for all 40 minutes."
Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle made a late adjustment, using Lever to trap on-ball screens and picked up a pair of key turnovers.
"I needed to get us to a timeout," Jacobson said. "All we needed to do was run around him."
The Antelopes consistently fed the ball into the block throughout the game, while guards Oscar Frayer and Tim Finke generated additional chances with three offensive rebounds apiece on kick-outs for a Grand Canyon team that outscored UNI 16-4 in second-chance points. Finke put back a missed shot, Gerard Martin scored off a turnover and the Antelopes used a 9-1 run late to take the lead for good.
Despite suffering another double-digit loss, this UNI team remains determined to grow.
"Our practices and preparation was very good and that tells you the most about the guys," Jacobson said. "That's always been a very good indicator for us is how they approach practice."