CEDAR FALLS — Bennett Koch picked a good night to have career highs in points and rebounds.
Four days removed from Northern Iowa getting a win at Bradley on the strength of 15 3-pointers and 60 percent shooting from deep, the Panthers went 3 of 19 from beyond the arc against Southern Illinois at home on Sunday.
The sophomore, who has had an at-times rocky second season, picked up the slack for a poor shooting performance in a way he hasn’t — and no UNI post player has — all season. Koch had a career high in points and rebounds with 22 and 11, and powered the Panthers to a much-needed 67-58 win.
“We talked about driving it and throwing it inside,” said Coach Ben Jacobson. “That changed the way the game was being played once we were able to throw it into Ben and then drive the basketball. That switch is what allowed us to get back.
“I just think he’s playing really good. This is his best game. For him to get 11 rebounds, he’s very capable of doing that on a nightly basis. He has to stay out of foul trouble and he’s got to remain really aggressive. Boy, he’s a good player. I think he’s doing a great job.”
Koch has had other games this season in which he’s shown the ability to do what he did against the Salukis (18-5, 7-3 Missouri Valley Conference), but has had more than a few games in which frustration took him down a bad road mentally.
Foul trouble has plagued him in a few games, but against SIU on Sunday, he went into halftime without a single one, and had gotten the Salukis’ big men in foul trouble on the other end. In fact, both SIU’s Bola Olaniyan and Ibby Djimde — the starting and backup centers — fouled out on plays that sent Koch to the free throw line.
Koch finished 8 of 9 from the field and 6 of 12 from the free throw line — perhaps the only part of his performance he’d like to change — and got a well-deserved ovation from McLeod Center’s crowd.
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It was a game his teammates needed, but also surely were happy to see for a kid who has had confidence issues.
“Bennett has had a few flashes this year where he’s been pretty great, but this one I think lets you know how good he can really be,” said Wes Washpun, who finished with 16 points. “He’s on his way. He’s starting to get more comfortable in there and it’s really showing.
“It’s really cool to see. We told him to keep his head up. He tends to get down on himself sometimes, and we just tell him to keep his head up and keep putting the time in, and it’ll come.”
Koch didn’t shy away from that though-process after the game.
His wide smile when addressing media in postgame told the story by itself, but he expanded anyway on what a game like this does for him. He expects a lot out of himself, he said, and it’s nice to live up to his expectations.
“I believe I’m capable of great things. I need to work on that when I don’t play at the level I believe I can play, I get down on myself,” Koch said. “Coach says to stay confident, so you’ve got to work on staying confident. He’s really been working with me, and my teammates as well, so I think everyone believing in me really helps with that.
“Sometimes when things don’t go well, I feel like they don’t trust me, even though I know they do trust me. I think confidence from that and confidence in myself helped me play well.”
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UNI (12-11, 4-6) got its first back-to-back wins since the last of a five-game winning streak on Nov. 30 against North Texas, and did so as much on the defensive end as through Koch in the post.
He, Klint Carlson and Ted Friedman played a pivotal role in that regard, Jacobson said. Washpun was tasked with shadowing Anthony Beane (16 points, five rebounds), and the trio of big men had to handle SIU’s rotating cast of post players.
“Defensively, we had as good a defensive performance as we’ve had in quite some time,” Jacobson said. “That gave us more size and helped us. It was pretty obvious early on they were going to go after Paul in the block and we were going to have to do something to slow them down. The play of the three big guys defensively and in rebounding really helped.”
A win like Sunday’s does wonders, Jacobson said, in terms of reminding his team what they’re capable of and what still could be accomplished.
Wins didn’t come in situations seen Sunday — a 10-point deficit midway through the first half, poor outside shooting; a rebounding deficit — before this. Jacobson’s decadelong mantra of defense and rebounding lived up, and because of it UNI is back above .500 and feels like it has a new lease on its season.
“You look at tonight, if you look at Paul, Bo and Wes — just their shots, makes, attempts — we have not won with those numbers. Tonight we did,” Jacobson said. “I think Bennett, Klint, Ted — he didn’t play as many minutes, but he played good — those guys played well. Defensively you have to play well, and in order to do that, you have to fight hard. Tonight we saw more of that.
“This is a good reminder that we’ve got a basketball team that is good right now but has a chance to be great still.”
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