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COLLEGE BASKETBALL | UNI

UNI aiming to get back on track in conference play

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UNI men's basketball vs. Evansville

The UNI men's basketball team picked up their first conference win of the season on Sunday against Evansville.

After getting off to a 2-5 start including a 71-69 loss to Bradley in their first conference game of the season, the UNI men’s basketball team looked like they were starting to become the team that was picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Conference a few weeks back.

After nearly two weeks off since losing to Richmond, UNI returned to play on Dec. 14 with a 66-56 win over Jackson State. They followed it up with a 75-60 win four days later on the road at Marshall. The Panthers were finally playing the way they knew they were capable of all along.

Then, non-COVID illness struck.

UNI traveled to Hawaii for the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic the week of Christmas when sickness hit the team. Starter Trae Berhow was out the whole week while key reserve Antwan Kimmons played just one minute. Leading scorer AJ Green also played sick throughout the trip. As a result, the Panthers took a step back.

UNI took on Liberty and ended up on the wrong end of a 76-74 result. The next day, the Panthers fell by one basket again, this time to Wyoming, 71-69. From there, UNI had more misfortune come their way.

The Panthers’ final game of the tournament against Hawaii was canceled as the Rainbow Warriors were hit by COVID. The Panthers were then slated to have a tune-up game against Wartburg last week, but Wartburg was forced to pull out due to their own COVID issues. It was a rough stretch for the team as they prepared for their first conference home game against Evansville.

It was just one game, but UNI didn’t look like they’d been having any issues on Sunday. In fact, head coach Ben Jacobson even noted that his team looked “fresh” in their 83-61 victory over the Aces. Jacobson also expressed hope that winning their conference home opener could be the spark they needed to get back on track.

“We had picked up some real momentum and a bunch of confidence with the home game against Jackson State and the way we played in the game at Marshall right before we left for Hawaii,” Jacobson said. “The trip (to Hawaii) got kicked sideways a little bit with Trae having to stay home and AJ and Antwan being sick while we were there...That really zapped some of the confidence and momentum that we had picked up the previous two games.

“We spent a lot of time our first two days back at practice watching a lot of film and figuring out (things). Regardless of who we have, regardless of who is healthy and who is available we need to play better. I felt like (Sunday) we played better and that’s a great way to get momentum back and pick up some confidence again.”

It should also be noted that as of Tuesday afternoon, Liberty was 9-6 overall while Wyoming was 11-2. Losing by a combined total of four points while missing a starter and having your best player battling illness to two teams like that isn’t much to hang your head over.

With the win over Evansville, the Panthers are 5-7 overall and 1-1 in MVC play. On Wednesday, UNI will attempt to move above .500 in conference play when they host Valparaiso (8-6, 1-1) at 8 p.m. at the McLeod Center. Winning their second conference game in a row, particularly against a winning team, would certainly add to UNI’s momentum and confidence level.

For what it’s worth, however, Berhow believes the Panthers’ confidence level is doing just fine.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to see a lack of confidence in our locker room,” he said. “We’re a very confident team. We played a lot of good non-conference teams and obviously lost a couple (of games) and we should’ve had a couple of those back, but our locker room never lacks confidence.”

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