CEDAR FALLS — A concerted team rebounding effort and just enough shooting from Spencer Haldeman and Tywhon Pickford pushed Northern Iowa past UNC Pembroke, 72-66, in an exhibition Sunday at McLeod Center.
The Braves made the NCAA Division II Tournament last season and proved why UNI head coach Ben Jacobson put them on their exhibition schedule during a 30-12 second-half run. A run that climbed them out of a 14-point first half deficit and saw their lead go to 64-56 with five minutes remaining.
Pembroke increased its defensive pressure to begin the second half and the strategy worked as the Panthers combined to shoot 3 of 21 the first 14 minutes of the half.
“All week (our) scout team was pretty aggressive on defense. We knew they were a quick, aggressive team on (defense),” said Haldeman, a sophomore guard. “We made some stupid mistakes early in the second half, but we bounced back.”
After pouring in 14 points in the first half on 4-of-5 shooting from deep, Haldeman sparked the UNI comeback at the 3:58 mark, taking a charge on a Brandon Watts drive. Watts — who led all scorers with 24 points — received a technical for arguing the call and the Panthers then went on a 16-2 run to close out the game and escape their final exhibition with a victory.
“To have a game like that, that’s still an exhibition game, I think is great,” Jacobson said. “Obviously we want to win, but had we got beat by two or three points and all that stuff would’ve happened it would have been just as valuable. That’s a great game to be able to play when you’re playing an exhibition game.”
Part of what was so valuable for the Panthers in their back-and-forth battle with UNC Pembroke was the play of their two true freshmen. Pickford was the leader of UNI’s 16-point surge to end the game and regain the lead, hitting three 3-point shots and 1-of-2 free throws, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds in 33 minutes of play.
Austin Phyfe logged 20 minutes, three more than his frontcourt teammate Bennett Koch, who was benched for the remainder of the game at the 13:49 mark of the second half.
“... Bennett didn’t respond very well to the (last) shot that he missed. He stood there instead of getting back. So that was going to be the end of his day,” Jacobson explained. “So we went with Phyfe and he went in and brought some energy and both those guys (Phyfe and Pickford) made plays. They’re going to be important to what we do, not just because they’re good players — that energy level changes. They’re in there making some plays.”
Phyfe added seven points and five rebounds, all offensive, in a performance that seemed to solidify his presence in Jacobson’s regular rotation.
“You never know as a freshman (when) you’re going to come in. (Or) how many minutes you’re going to get,” Phyfe said. “Knowing that (Coach) had the trust in me to stay out there meant a lot to me.”
The real games begin for UNI on Friday when they travel to Chapel Hill, N.C., to take on No. 9 North Carolina for a primetime, nationally-broadcast game (6 p.m., ESPNU). A game the Panthers lost 85-42 last season in the first of their two scheduled return trips after the initial 71-67 defeat of the Tar Heels in 2015 in Cedar Falls.
“That place is pretty crazy,” Haldeman said of UNC and the Dean Smith Center. “Just the history that is within the building, all the players that have played there. I think last year we had some nerves going down there to a big stadium like that against a team of that caliber, but I think this year we have a little more experience. We kind of know what to expect and that will help a lot.”
Wyatt Lohaus, Hunter Rhodes and Justin Dahl all did not play as a result of injuries that continue to linger. Rhodes’ foot injury was expected to keep him out of the two exhibition games and secret scrimmage, however Dahl’s neck injury and Lohaus’ toe injury have been classified as day-to-day variety ailments that have existed for longer than a week.
“Hunter is getting a little bit better. (Wyatt) hasn’t been back in practice yet. He’ll test (the toe) out tomorrow just to see if it feels better. (Justin Dahl) has been out for a stretch now as well,” Jacobson said. “It’s getting to be a while for all three of them. Would love to have them back as soon as possible, but they’re not coming back til they’re ready.”