CEDAR FALLS — It took an extra five minutes, but Northern Iowa toppled previously undefeated UNLV, 77-68, Wednesday night at McLeod Center.
UNI (6-2) took a 34-29 advantage into the break and, when Bennett Koch scored 10 points in 4:22 to begin the second half, appeared to have the Runnin’ Rebels handled. UNLV found some defensive success on Koch after his scoring outburst, limiting UNI to 1-of-11 shooting for a considerable stretch of the half and taking a 56-55 lead at the 6:19 mark.
UNI’s struggles on offense went well beyond Koch’s second-half lull. Starters Juwan McCloud, Isaiah Brown, and Tywhon Pickford combined to shoot 2 of 15, totaling 10 points combined. Thankfully for Northern Iowa, Klint Carlson, who entered the game averaging 6.7 points per contest, scored a career-high 23 to go along with a career-high 30 points from Koch.
“The last couple games we’ve had lulls like that in the second half,” Carlson said. “So I was telling Bennett — you know, they were trying to get us the ball inside — we’ve got to keep being aggressive. Don’t second guess anything. Keep going at them. I was hyping him up a little bit saying ‘they can’t guard you, they can’t guard you.’
“I was just trying to keep everybody’s intensity level up.”
With 3:46 to play in regulation, Jovan Mooring hit a 3-pointer to put UNLV up 59-55. With less than a minute to play, Koch threw a pass to Spencer Haldeman on the perimeter that went into the seats, but the senior was saved by a blocking foul called on Mooring. Down by one, Koch hit 1 of 2 free throws to send the game into overtime.
“I knew that their No. 44, (Brandon) McCoy — Coach (Ben Jacobson) was telling me that he’s a great player,” Koch said. “People are talking about how he’s going to be a lottery pick so I wanted to go out there and see how I could play against an NBA-level player. I just wanted to go out there, play my game and be confident. I think I did all right.”
UNI scored first in the extra period and extended its lead to 68-63 after Tywhon Pickford converted another put-back score and Haldeman found Koch for a two-handed dunk that all but sealed the win.
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“Give our guys a lot of credit. All we talked about was coming home and getting better,” Jacobson said. “Defense and rebounding, home, away, neutral (floor) it doesn’t matter. You defend and rebound and you’ve got the opportunity to dictate the pace. And our guys have really found some belief in that.
“What we did last week in those three games and what we did tonight, the guys have made a huge step forward in terms of how much they believe that defense and rebounding matter. That’s what’s made the difference in our play here the last four games.”