CEDAR FALLS – Every game ends with a text. After the final buzzer, making his way to the locker room, and even after postgame interviews, there is one more person Anthony James answers to – his mother.
Stored away in his phone, James’ mother texts her son asking how many points he scored. With the response comes simple arithmetic.
With 15 points in a win over Saint Mary’s last week, the senior guard sits 20 points shy of 1,000 for his career at Northern Iowa.
“It’s a great feeling to know that I’m closing in, close to the 1,000-point mark,” James said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of guys would think about it. I know I do. I just think it would put another stamp on my career here at UNI.”
The stamp would cover a footnote to his final season at UNI. The potential career landmark comes right as the conference season starts. The Panthers kick off Missouri Valley Conference play Sunday with a trip to Kansas to play Wichita State.
In any other season, the postgame scoring updates would have ended prior to conference play. This season, James’ quest for 1,000 might leak into 2013 due to a suspension.
James missed the first three games of his senior campaign due to a three game suspension for violating team rules.
“It was tough but I always kept my head on straight,” James said. “A lot of people were in my corner.”
Again his parents were there. Both teachers in the St. Louis area, where James grew up, the texting buddies experienced this before.
“I don’t like to bring it up a lot but, this is kind of the same situation that happened to me in high school,” James said. “Going into my senior year, just some sort of bad trend, (my parents) were real positive about the whole situation.”
Heading into his senior year at Normandy High School in St. Louis, the team suspended James three games to start the season – again for violating team rules.
“I never want to put myself in that position or the coaching staff or my teammates in the position to where they felt I let them down,” James said. “Me going through that the first time, I just knew what I needed to do to bring myself back up and keep a high spirit about things.”
With James – the team’s leading scorer from a year ago – sidelined for the first three games, the Panthers started the season 3-0. James returned for UNI’s trip to the Bahamas and the Battle for Atlantis. The first time he took the court, he saw the No. 3 ranked Louisville Cardinals across the gym.
“Even though he’s an experienced player, the first time you step out there, you’ve got Russ Smith and Peyton Siva,” Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said. “That’s who you play against; a different start to the season.”
The suspension also created a hiatus in the team chemistry developed last year. As a junior the 6-foot shooting guard came off the bench. As a senior he was expected to start.
From the first practice in mid-October to the first game on Nov. 10, James practiced on the scout team, while Matt Bohannon fell into the starting five. Despite having his role diminished, his voice echoed louder than ever.
“He did his job. He missed those games but maybe a lot of people that aren’t on our team know what he was doing,” senior guard Marc Sonnen said. “He was practicing really hard and doing all the little things that he needed to do to get himself ready.”
James’ role as a leader on the team, whether he played or not, became clear after the Panthers’ 84-81 overtime win against Toledo. The suspended James burst in the locker room greeting his team with boisterous cheers, as loud as anyone who played.
“He came in so happy,” Sonnen said. “That just showed us that he really does care. Even though he didn’t play, he wanted to be out there, but he was so proud of us. And that shows as a true leader, you gotta be able to help teammates get past hard times.”
The good times seem to be upon James. In his first five games, he averaged 7.0 points per game against the top 25 competition and a start at point guard while Deon Mitchell dealt with a bone bruise.
During the next four, he got his legs back. He was the only Panther to reach double-figures in each of the four while averaging 15.5 points per game. Overall he’s dropping 10.8 points per game, good enough for second on the team behind Deon Mitchell’s 12.4.
“Missing those first three games, you know, it kind of set me back a little just to get in the game,” James said. “But since I came back I’m feeling real good.”
James entered the season needing 117 to join the 1,000 point fraternity, which consists of 34 members. In his journey to become No. 35, he’s scored 97 points so far, helping him move from No. 45 on the all-time scoring list to No. 36.
When he does enter the club, he might have company soon. Fellow senior Jake Koch sits 139 points away from the plateau. With 19 regular season games remaining, the 6-foot-9 forwards needs to average a little more than seven points per game to achieve the milestone.
But for the seniors who enjoyed the sweetness of an upset of No. 1 Kansas in the 2010 second round of the NCAA tournament, individual goals don’t revolve around points. In a season that hasn’t reach conference play, James has ridden a roller coaster with dips and peaks. Cashing in on point No. 1,000 would be a high, but he’s hoping it’s not the highest peak.
“Personal expectations was just to go out on top,” James said. “That would be every year, even if I was a freshman. Just to put the stamp on it, my last year here at UNI, would be, the greatest accomplishment is to end my senior year a conference champion.”