CEDAR FALLS — No worries, Northern Iowa Panthers fans. No worries.
That loss Wednesday night at Loyola turned out to be a hiccup and nothing else. A glass of water, a little holding of the breath, and this late-season surge continues.
Though it got a little dicey in the second half, UNI had more than enough good moments to brush past Illinois State, 75-66, Saturday afternoon before 6,145 fans at the McLeod Center.
It’s seven wins in eight games now for Northern Iowa (17-12), which is doing everything it can to stay far, far away from the first night of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in a couple of weeks. The Panthers are 9-7 in league play, good for fifth place.
The top six teams avoid having to play that dreaded Thursday night opening-round game in St. Louis. UNI concludes its regular season with a home game Wednesday night against Indiana State and a road game a week from Saturday at Evansville.
“The rest of these games are huge,” said UNI’s Jeremy Morgan. “We’re working on getting as high a seed as we can now. This was a big game moving forward.”
“It means everything,” added UNI’s Wes Washpun. “The guys do a good job of just bouncing back, bringing it every night. Trying to bring some fire after a disappointing loss is hard to do, but we came out here and did it tonight. We fought with a really talented basketball team tonight.”
And a really hot basketball team. Illinois State (17-12, 11-5) came in here on a five-game win streak, its only loss in its previous nine games coming in overtime.
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But Northern Iowa spurted early to a 10-point lead, took a 14-point edge into halftime and had a 19-point lead early in the second half.
“I think coming home was as big as getting that (loss) back,” said Panthers Coach Ben Jacobson. “To be able to come back to our home floor after Wednesday’s game and play as well as we did ... Illinois State is playing great, so to be able to come in here and play the way we did (was big). We battled them on the boards, the guys were really active defensively. Then to have a lot of guys involved in the offense. I just thought the guys played great.”
All five starters finished with double-figures scoring for UNI, which shot 55.1 percent from the field. That was an indication of the way the Panthers moved the basketball most of the game.
The offense stalled, however, in the second half, with UNI going six minutes between points and 7:17 between field goals. That forced Jacobson to change things up, with the Panthers spreading the floor and letting Washpun create.
The senior point guard did just that, driving for back-to-back hoops that extended UNI’s lead from a precarious 49-46 to 53-46 with 9:29 to go. Washpun’s penatration and dish to Matt Bohannon for a corner trey made it a 56-48 game a short time later, and that was all she wrote.
“I was just trying anyway I can to get our momentum back flowing,” said Washpun, who finished with a game-high 18 points. “Whether it’s a big defensive stop, a rebound or a steal, Anything that can get us back going.”
“We were going with our passing game for most of the first 30 minutes,” Jacobson said. “But we weren’t getting much of it, so we went to some ball-screen action, some stuff on the sides, some stuff in the middle. Wes was great ... It just felt like we had to get to something else. They had defended us pretty well there for a stretch in the second half. I give Wes a lot of credit. We hadn’t done it in this game much, we hadn’t done it much in previous games. He came through with some big plays for us.”
Jeremy Morgan had 13 points for UNI, which avenged a nine-point loss at Illinois State in late January. Paul Jesperson added 12, and Bennett Koch and Bohannon 10 apiece.
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“We were sharper offensively,” Jacobson said. “We just had a few more things going. Overall it just felt better. But like I said after that game, I didn’t think we played that bad. We just didn’t get enough going on offense. We’re playing our best basketball right now.” UNI limited ISU’s leading scorer, DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, to just two points, though he played only nine minutes because of what was believed to be sickness. Point guard Paris Lee led the Redbirds with 14 points.
“I thought the effort was there Wednesday, too, but we just came up a couple of plays short,” Morgan said of the 59-56 Loyola loss. “Tonight, Coach really wanted us to bounce back with a lot of energy. Set the tone and be aggressive on offense.”
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