CEDAR FALLS — A shakeup to its starting lineup led to a wire-to-wire 81-76 victory for Northern Iowa over Valparaiso on Saturday, its first in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Freshman forward Austin Phyfe started in place of senior Bennett Koch, who had previously started all 17 games for UNI. Panthers head coach Ben Jacobson addressed the decision to give Phyfe his first career start in favor of Koch after the win.
“We talked a lot about that as a staff and gave that a lot of thought,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “Most importantly trying to find a way to give us a little different start to the game. Tonight he was able to get some things rolling to the rim. Some dump-off stuff. Able to get to the free throw line some. Because he’s so active.”
Phyfe made his presence felt immediately, grabbing an offensive rebound and converting a layup amid contact for a three-point play to open the scoring. Koch played just six minutes in the first half in his new reserve role. Meanwhile, fellow true freshman Tywhon Pickford combined with Phyfe to score 17 of UNI’s 32 first-half points.
The Panthers (9-9, 1-5), who battled offensive struggles throughout their winless start to conference play, spent much of their time playing through their two true freshmen. UNI built its first-half lead by holding the Crusaders (11-8, 2-4) scoreless for nearly five minutes while going on a 12-0 run.
Jacobson credited point guard Juwan McCloud.
“We got to a lot of ball-screen actions and Juwan was making some great reads,” Jacobson said. “Staying on the dribble long enough and finding guys. Instead of trying to take a tough shot he’s working to find guys. That carried us through a lot of the first half and it carried us a long ways into the second half.”
After opening the second half on a 14-2 run that lasted nearly five minutes, UNI extended its lead to 44-23 with just under 16 minutes to play. Valparaiso clawed its way back into the game after a 17-3 run that began with 3 1/2 minutes to play. After having been down by 23 earlier in the half the Crusaders were down just five with 1:22 to play. The Panthers turned it over six times in the final four minutes, but shot 7-of-11 from the free throw line in the last minute and half to fend off Valparaiso’s late surge.
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“I told the guys, don’t let that last three minutes distract you from a terrific performance,” Jacobson said. “We defended them well. The points they got were in that last three minutes or so where it got to be a scramble. I think the most important thing is this gives us just a different bounce in our step. When we come to the gym tomorrow it will be the first time in three weeks, or three-plus weeks, that we’ve come back to the gym after beating somebody.”
Pickford’s 23 points and Phyfe’s 20 were career-highs for the two true freshman. Pickford added nine rebounds while Phyfe had eight.
Phyfe said Jacobson told him Friday before practice that he was going to start. Jacobson was in search of a different look offensively for his first unit, as well as his second, saying the staff feels good about Koch coming off the bench playing with four guards around him.
“(That first basket) was definitely the type of bucket to get me settled in,” Phyfe said. “I looked at it as just another game, but it’s different than coming off the bench. So I had a little bit of nerves. It’s definitely a confidence booster. I’ve still been kind of adapting to the whole college basketball thing. I think I’ve adapted pretty well, but (tonight) I think I kind of got that comfort level where I played those minutes where I can now just be comfortable.”