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CEDAR RAPIDS — They dug themselves out of a hole in the conference season. Can the Northern Iowa Panthers do it again?
It’s not really a hole UNI finds itself in as it readies for the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament in St. Louis. A three-game losing streak to end the regular season is more a toe stubbing compared to dropping its first five MVC games in late December and January.
Northern Iowa plays Missouri State in a tourney quarterfinal Friday night at 8:30.
“It’s not easy, but it’s just something that you’ve got to do,” UNI’s Jeremy Morgan said. “Obviously you’ve got to use that as motivation and go into this weekend firing. That’s what we’re going to do.”
UNI has won the last two MVC tournaments, though the Panthers were playing well going into each of them. They countered an 0-5 conference start this season with a great run of basketball in which they won 10 of their next 11 games.
Northern Iowa lost to Wichita State, Indiana State and Illinois State down the stretch, however. Wichita State and Illinois State tied for the MVC championship at 17-1, a whopping eight games ahead of the third-place team, which happened to be UNI.
Illinois State (25-5) is this tournament’s top seed, Wichita State (27-4) No. 2, and they are the heavy favorites. But “Arch Madness” has tended to bring out the best in Northern Iowa (14-15).
The Panthers split their two regular-season games with Missouri State (16-15).
“We were really playing well and had some momentum, along with having the right group of guys. I think those are probably the two biggest things from our standpoint,” UNI Coach Ben Jacobson said of his team’s recent March magic. “I think that’s why we’ve had success down (here). This year, we had a ton of momentum there in the middle, but in the last 10 days, we haven’t played as good. So we’re going to have to generate a little momentum in our practices and (with) the things we talk about, so we have a chance this year.”
Northern Iowa’s surge came in large part because of improvement in defense. Offensive inefficiency has been confounding for this team, as it seems to have scoring droughts regularly.
A return to form of senior forward Morgan, a second-team all-MVC pick, is a must. The former Iowa City West prep was just 8 of 36 from the field in UNI’s final three regular-season games.
“He hasn’t shot it as well as he did earlier in the year, as well as he’s capable of,” Jacobson said. “We certainly feel that he’s more than got it in him to come out and put up a performance we’ve seen from him this year and seen from him a lot in St. Louis.”
“He’s our best player and one of three or four of our guys who have to score for us. He gets a lot of attention, but we’ve been able to free him up, he’s been able to free himself up. He just hasn’t shot it as good as he’s capable of ... I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play great on Friday.”
If UNI wins Friday, it would play a semifinal Saturday afternoon at 5:30, most likely against Wichita State.
“I’m really excited to get to tomorrow night,” Morgan said. “I love this time of the year, and I think these guys are ready to go.”
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