TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- In sports, tangible improvements can oftentimes lead to an even greater sense of frustration when wins aren't coming.
And the frustrations of a seven-game losing streak may have reached peak levels for the Northern Iowa men's basketball team Wednesday night.
Brandon Murphy got inside position over four UNI players and successfully tipped in a Jordan Barnes miss at the buzzer, lifting Indiana State to a 69-67 win and sending the Panthers to an 0-5 start in Missouri Valley Conference play for the second consecutive year.
Behind the hot shooting of Barnes, who finished with 27 points and five 3-pointers, the Sycamores, who turned a nine-point deficit into an eight-point lead with under six minutes to play, looked to have the game under control.
But UNI, which topped 60 points for the first time in MVC play, put together a 14-6 spurt, the highlight of which came when Juwan McCloud ripped the ball away from Brenton Scott in the backcourt, then kicked to Isaiah Brown, who found Tywhon Pickford for a layup which tied the game at 67 with 8.2 seconds remaining.
But with 6-foot-7 Klint Carlson, the biggest UNI player on the court during the final possession, coming out to perimeter to guard Barnes' potential game-winning shot attempt, Murphy, who goes 6-7, 270 pounds, was able to get his hand above four UNI players, tapping the ball over the outstretched arms of Wyatt Lohaus for the decisive basket, which stood after an official replay.
"Coming down, he had a free lane to the hoop," said Pickford, who led UNI with 18 points and seven rebounds. "And he's a big guy, so he was able to get through and jump up and tip it in."
UNI played the final 9:19 without 6-10 leading scorer Bennett Koch, who had just two points and four rebounds in 13 minutes. His 6-9 teammate Austin Phyfe, who had six points and three rebounds in 11 minutes, was also off the floor on the final possession, which coach Ben Jacobson said was done so he could have better defensive match-ups around the 3-point line.
"They were going to go to that high ball screen, so we were going to have to defend Barnes and the ball screen," said Jacobson, whose team was outrebounded 35-28.
Isaiah Brown (13 points), Lohaus (12) and Carlson (11) also finished in double figures for UNI, which led by as many as 11 after the Sycamores scored the game's first nine points.
Jacobson had a lot of positives to say about his team's progress in recent games, but admits improvements don't mean if it doesn't eventually result in wins.
And while surprised by the seven-game skid, which dropped his team under .500 at 8-9 overall, his confidence in his club's ability to turn things around remains.
"We've gotten better the last two games," he said. "Now at some point, you've got to do enough to have something to show for it. And these guys will. These guys will find a way to get over the hump soon."
Though they too are puzzled by the struggles, players say they share their coach's optimism.
"I really don't know," McCloud said when asked why the Panthers were struggling so much. "There's no real answer to it. We can't really put a finger on it.
"So now we've just got to keep going back to the books, and just staying with what made us good in the Bahamas and our pre-conference play. Just getting back to the basics and staying confident."
RE-AGGRAVATED: Two weeks after a back injury kept him out of the Valley opener against Southern Illinois, Spencer Haldeman was limited to three minutes Wednesday after colliding with a teammate during a workout.
"He was able to workout but he wasn't moving great," Jacobson said. "So I went with the other guys."
Despite being unable to play in the second half, there doesn't seem to be much concern regarding Haldeman's health going forward.
"He should be fine for our next practice," Jacobson said.
The Panthers look to grab the elusive first conference win when Valparaiso makes its first visit to the McLeod Center as a member of the Valley on Saturday. The game tips at 7 p.m.