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UNI secures outright MVC title against Drake

UNI secures outright MVC title against Drake


DES MOINES – Unselfish basketball allowed the University of Northern Iowa’s men to become selfish on the final day of league play.

Two-time Missouri Valley Conference regular season defending champion Loyola was lurking a half-game back of the first-place Panthers following a one-point win over Bradley earlier Saturday afternoon, but UNI wasn’t about to let the Ramblers have a piece of the pie.

UNI locked down Drake with one its top defensive showings of the season, while four players reached double figure scoring totals within a balanced offense as the Panthers prevailed, 70-43, in front of a sold out Knapp Center crowd of 7,152.

“It feels great,” said UNI senior Isaiah Brown. “That’s what every kid dreams of – to play Division I basketball and win a championship, at that.”

Brown, who entered UNI’s program as a defensive stopper, has built himself into a valuable two-way player on a team that had yet to record a winning league record during his previous three seasons.

While much of the MVC’s preseason buzz surrounded programs with incoming transfers from power conference schools, a UNI team picked to finish third in the poll of media members, coaches and sports information directors found success the old-fashioned way. A strong returning core of players improved while incoming freshmen helped provide an added spark.

“Sticking together,” Brown responded when asked what it took to win the MVC outright. “I think we’re a big family. A lot of teams got in a lot of transfers and they didn’t really have that team chemistry and that family bond that we have. I think that’s helped us a lot along the way.”

UNI (25-5, 14-4) received contributions from a variety of players during this victory that made sure the program’s first MVC title since 2010 was of the outright variety.

Center Austin Phyfe shined in a battle featuring two of the MVC’s top centers with a monster double-double of 17 points and 18 rebounds. The 18 boards matched a UNI single-game record against an MVC opponent that he set earlier this season.

“That just speaks to his effort,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “First play of the game, last play of the game, it doesn’t really matter for him. His effort and energy is off the charts.”

While Phyfe finished 8-for-15 shooting inside against Drake’s 7-footer Liam Robbins, UNI’s guards also took turns making key shots.

Brown received feeds from Phyfe and point guard AJ Green as UNI countered double teams with its senior knocking down three open 3-pointers and finishing with 15 points to go with five assists. Green overcame a 3-for-13 start from the field and added 15 points after making five of his final six looks.

A surprising burst of production then came from 6-foot-6 freshman reserve Noah Carter. The Dubuque native entered alongside Robbins early in the second half. He broke off 11 points in five minutes as UNI extended a 38-27 lead into 51-33 advantage by the time he was subbed out.

UNI’s five turnovers were a season-low, and the Panthers made 47.6% of their field goals with six 3-pointers.

“The unselfishness is really, really high with this group and the understanding of the game plan,” Jacobson said. “We knew Drake was going to stand next to the shooters. They were going to play off of three of the guys, and we had to be able to accept that. Trae (Berhow, UNI’s second-leading scorer) knew coming in that he wasn’t going to get shots. He defended hard, rebounded hard and still played his tail off on the other end. Those things are important.”

Playing a Drake team (18-13, 8-10) that put up 39 first-half points in Cedar Falls, UNI’s defense provided early separation. Point guard Roman Penn was the Bulldogs’ lone player in double figures with 17 points.

“I thought Northern Iowa did some good things defensively, made some nice adjustments and they had a lot to do with it,” Drake coach Darian DeVries said, after his team finished 3-for-21 from distance. “They made things tough for us really all night. We just weren’t able to get anything going consecutively and get into any type of rhythm offensively.”

The Panthers held Drake to seven points over the final 12 minutes of the first half and took a 30-18 lead into intermission.

D.J. Wilkins connected for Drake’s first made 3-pointer in eight attempts just over one minute into the second half to cut the Bulldog’s deficit to seven. UNI’s Brown then knocked down his second 3-pointer to push the visitors’ advantage back to 10.

UNI later answered a pair of Drake baskets with a crucial 10-0 run. Brown and Phyfe traded assists and baskets before Carter was subbed into the game at the same time as Robbins, who stood six inches taller.

“My first thought was he’s going to have to guard me too,” Carter said. “I knew I was going to have to guard him. But I was thinking whatever came open to me, I was going to try to take it.”

Carter immediately got loose for a dunk in the paint, and followed that up with his first of three 3-pointers as he punished the Bulldogs for double teaming off of him.

“I just wanted to see if we could get a three before Robbins got a two,” Jacobson said, addressing the unconventional match-up with Carter at the 5. “It happened to work out. Then that lead increased and we got another stop.”

UNI continued to pull away as the road fans in purple made their presence known down the stretch. An option to secure an NCAA Tournament at-large berth that appeared to be on life support following the Panthers’ first back-to-back losses of the season has now turned into a more convincing case for the MVC’s newly-crowned regular season champion.

“After Loyola, Indiana State (road losses) there was a lot on the next three games,” Jacobson said. “You couldn’t ask for anything more than what they’ve done the last three (wins). I say we keep going.”

UNI 70, Drake 43


Phyfe 29 8-15 1-4 18 2 1 17

Green 35 6-18 3-3 1 4 2 15

Berhow 35 2-2 0-0 5 1 2 4

Brown 35 6-12 0-0 5 5 3 15

Haldeman 38 3-5 0-0 4 1 0 6

Pickford 8 0-1 0-0 2 0 0 0

Dahl 4 0-1 0-2 2 1 2 0

Carter 8 4-5 0-0 2 0 2 11

Kimmons 5 1-4 0-0 1 0 1 2

McDonnell 2 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0

Conrey 2 0-0 0-0 1 0 0 0

Team 2

Totals 200 30-63 4-9 44 14 13 70

Drake Mn FG-A FT-A Rb As PF TP

Robbins 31 3-8 2-4 10 1 0 8

Wilkins 27 2-8 0-0 4 1 2 5

Murphy 19 0-2 2-2 0 0 5 2

Penn 34 7-15 2-2 7 1 3 17

Jackson 29 0-3 0-0 0 0 0 0

Sturtz 25 2-4 1-2 2 1 1 5

Pilipovic 5 0-2 0-0 1 1 1 0

Thomas 23 2-11 1-2 2 0 0 6

Ernst 2 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0

Jones 2 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0

Barrett 2 0-0 0-0 1 0 0 0

Gholson 2 0-1 0-0 0 0 0 0

Team 4

Totals 200 16-53 8-12 32 5 12 43

N. Iowa 30 4070

Drake 18 2543

3-point goals – UNI 6-17 (Green 0-5, Brown 3-6, Haldeman 0-1, Carter 3-4, Kimmons 0-1), Drake 3-21 (Robins 0-1, Wilkins 1-2, Murphy 0-2, Penn 1-4, Jackson 0-3, Sturtz 0-1, Pilipovic 0-2, Thomas 1-5, Gholson 0-1). Blocks – UNI 2 (Phyfe 2), Drake (Robbins 4). Turnovers – UNI 5 (Green 2), Drake 9 (three at 3). Steals – UNI 6 (Berhow, Haldeman 2), Drake 1 (Penn).

Officials – Grimshaw, Lowe, Wilson. Att. – 7,152.


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