CEDAR FALLS — Whether it’s the latest smart phone, blockbuster movie or chicken sandwich craze, there’s an added value to instant gratification.
University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball fans waited until mid-December before the Panthers hosted another NCAA Division I opponent last season.
Opening night will have a far different feel at 7 p.m. today when the lights of the McLeod Center are turned on and 2019 NCAA Tournament qualifier Old Dominion is the challenger.
The Monarchs bring back eight players with game experience from a 26-9 team that ranked sixth nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 60.9 points a game. While Old Dominion’s top two scorers graduated, returning Conference USA Tournament MVP Xavier Green is among the leaders for a team that won the league’s regular-season and postseason tournament.
UNI secured a unique split with Old Dominion last year, winning 54-53 in the Paradise Jam before suffering a 72-65 loss in an instant rematch in Norfolk, Va.
“There aren’t any questions about how good Old Dominion is,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said, assessing a program that has averaged 25 wins the past four years. “We’re going to see a really good team and they’re going to do things the right way on both ends of the floor. They play with a lot of discipline. They play with a lot of toughness. They make the plays that have to get made.”
While Jacobson wants his players to rise to the challenge, UNI’s coach also hopes his team’s supporters make their presence known.
“I would hope, and I want our fans to show up,” Jacobson said. “This is not an exhibition game. This is the real thing, and against a terrific team with very good players.”
An increased sense of urgency has accompanied UNI’s most recent practices.
A Panthers team that returns 10 players, including six seniors, struggled during its scrimmage against North Dakota State. The attention to detail, awareness and determination Jacobson covets on the defensive end of the floor picked up in the second scrimmage with South Dakota State.
“It was mostly with some of our older guys,” Jacobson said. “They did not put together a performance in that first one (against NDSU) that was at all where we should have been. Coming out of that we had a good week of practice. They played much better in the second scrimmage.”
Attempting to take a step forward this season, UNI will quickly find out where it sits against an Old Dominion program coached by Jeff Jones, who owns a 497-354 career record.
“We’re playing against a program,” Jacobson said. “We’re not playing against a team, and there’s a big difference. The foundation is in place. They understand what’s important.”
VOLLEYBALL: UNI (18-9, 12-1) will have a chance to avenge its only league loss on Friday at Illinois State (13-10, 6-5), before traveling to Bradley (11-11, 7-4) on Saturday.
Sophomore middle blocker Inga Rotto helped UNI find balance last weekend with 24 kills versus one error during wins over Missouri State and Southern Illinois. Five Panthers reached at least seven kills in the sweep against Missouri State before four tallied at least 12 kills in a four-set win against Southern Illinois.
“Last year she was a little bit more of a blocking specialist and an offensive decoy,” UNI coach Bobbi Petersen said of Rotto. “We did not set her the ball much. She had so much growth over the spring. She’s now developed a level of confidence, she’s calling for the ball more.
“When she becomes a factor, obviously that’s going to open up other things for other people in the front row and allows a lot more flexibility for Rachel (UNI setter Koop) as well.”
CROSS COUNTRY: UNI’s men placed third and the women sixth at the Missouri Valley Conference meet in Valparaiso, Ind. It marked the highest finish by the Panther men’s program since a 2003 title season.
Seniors Wal Khat (fifth) and CJ May (sixth) led UNI.
“They’ve been talking about finishing top three all season long and did a really good job of embracing that,” UNI coach Dave Paulsen said.
SWIMMING AND DIVING: UNI secured weekend wins over Western Illinois, St. Cloud State, South Dakota State and South Dakota. Success came from leaders such as Katie Taylor (five wins), Sydney Schmidt (six wins), Moriah Ross (five wins), and distance swimmers Sarah Walpole and Kylie Engstrom.
“For the three years that I’ve been here, that was our best all-around performance,” Coach Nick Lakin said. “We need 35 athletes to really step up and be really good all the time, and that was the first time we felt like everybody mattered and everybody really pushed forward.”
WRESTLING: UNI will take approximately 21 wrestlers to Sunday’s Harold Nichols Open in Ames. It will mark the first collegiate competition for the program’s six freshmen.
“I’ve been very happy with the focused effort guys have given,” Coach Doug Schwab said. “We’re trying to get guys to score points, to wrestle through positions, to really raise the level of the room and raise the level of the guy next to them.”
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