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UNI clinches title share, goes undefeated at home
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UNI clinches title share, goes undefeated at home

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CEDAR FALLS – It’s been a decade since University of Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson has had a chance to walk up a ladder and take scissors to a McLeod Center net in celebration of a regular season conference title.

UNI’s coach opted to extend the wait following Wednesday night’s 84-64 victory over Evansville that clinched a share of the Missouri Valley Conference crown, along with the third perfect home record in program history.

The Panthers (24-5, 13-4 MVC) have secured the MVC Tournament’s No. 1 seed, and will be guaranteed an outright title with a win at Drake in Saturday’s 5 p.m. regular-season finale.

“Our administration, we talked about it on Monday morning, and I told them that we weren’t going to (cut down nets),” Jacobson said. “We’ve still got work to do on Saturday, and that’s the same thing I told the guys. Had this been to clinch an outright title, we would have cut them down tonight.”

The McLeod Center’s nets not only survived a pair of scissors, they also endured a UNI team that spent the majority of Wednesday night trying to torch them with hot shooting. The Panthers made a season-high 62.7% of their field goals with freshman reserve Noah Carter joining four starters in double figures, led by AJ Green’s 21 points.

Entering the home finale with a one-game lead in the standings over two-time defending champion Loyola, UNI had an extra incentive to come out sharp.

“It was a statement game for us,” said Trae Berhow, who shot 7-for-11 from the field with two 3-pointers for 16 points. “We wanted to come out and prove that we’re the best team in the league. I think we just did that tonight.”

Evansville (9-21, 0-17) kept pace with UNI’s offense eight minutes into the game, 19-19, before the Panther bench sparked an 18-6 surge over a six-minute stretch. Guards Tywhon Pickford and Antwan Kimmons followed up stellar defensive plays by pushing the ball in transition early. Noah Carter was inserted into an undersized center position at the back end of the surge, providing defensive stability and finishing the run with a 3-pointer followed by a traditional three-point play through contact between two defenders for a 37-25 lead.

Bench production is an area where Jacobson says this team has evolved within a season in which he’s felt like players have always been ready to contribute when their number is called.

“It’s just got a better feel to it here,” Jacobson said. “It’s never been an issue with the team, but it just feels like more this last month that this is a big-time team deal.”

Carter, a 6-foot-6 freshman from Dubuque whose minutes have ranged anywhere from not playing into the upper teens, was sharp throughout this game. He tallied 11 points with two steals and a momentum-changing blocked shot on K.J. Riley after Evansville clawed within 10 points early in the second half.

UNI’s hot shooting offense then extended the gap to the finish line.

“We don’t have enough time for me to describe to you how much better he is defensively than he was three months ago,” Jacobson said of Carter’s impact. “To me, the most impressive thing is that he was ready. He didn’t know if he was going to play tonight or not. He hadn’t played much, but he was ready.”

Skilled offensively, Carter says defense has been his focus since stepping foot on campus. He’s embraced the game-to-game uncertainly that accompanies playing on a team with a productive starting five.

“I just tell myself every day if I get an opportunity, take it,” Carter said. “Coach in the locker room said whether I don’t play a game like last game, or if I play like tonight, just be ready. I think I’ve done well in that spot and just continue to work.”

As UNI pulled away over the final 10 minutes, a McLeod Center crowd of 4,934 often rose to its feet to salute a team that achieved perfection in its gym one year removed from a 9-5 home record.

“This is big time,” Green said. “It’s something we didn’t do a great job of last year, so to be able to protect our home court is huge and it’s not always an easy task. Teams come in here and give us their best shot every night. I’m very proud of our guys for doing that this season.”

Added Berhow, “I feel like we’re one of the hardest teams in the NCAA to beat at home. I welcome anybody next year, any non-conference game, to come play us here. It’s fun. I love it playing here in front of our fans.”

CONREY CONNECTS: Waterloo native Lincoln Conrey grew up a loyal UNI basketball fan and has been a fixture within the program over the past five seasons. The redshirt senior walk-on’s connection to his teammates was visible by their reaction from the bench when he knocked down a contested 3-pointer with 1:12 remaining in his final home game.

“On senior night he was talking about how he’s never wanted to be anywhere else,” Jacobson related. “He’s put five years into this thing. To say he loves this place would be a drastic understatement. This is home for him. I’m really happy that he had a chance to be in there and knock in that three. He’s earned it.”

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