CEDAR FALLS — A 39-point first half propelled Northern Iowa to a 71-56 win over Missouri State in its regular-season finale Saturday at McLeod Center.
The Bears (17-14, 7-11 MVC) entered Saturday’s matchup with plenty to play for, specifically avoiding a dreaded Thursday night game next week at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
Trailing 20-16 with just over 10 minutes to play in the first half, UNI (15-15, 7-11) went on a 21-2 run to take a 39-25 lead into halftime. The Panthers, who were without leading scorer Bennett Koch (ankle), used a balanced attack to pull away from the Bears. Klint Carlson and Wyatt Lohaus led the first-half scoring outburst with 12 and nine points, respectively, while Luke McDonnell and Austin Phyfe came off the bench and added six and four points during the run.
“I thought it was our defense that helped us a lot at the end of that half,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “Then, offensively I just thought our guys made some good decisions and some good plays. We got Wyatt (Lohaus) isolated on some plays. He obviously had a good first half. Felt like the guys had another game where they covered a lot of things themselves. That’s been a good step forward the last three weeks for us.”
Missouri State trimmed UNI’s lead to nine with just under four minutes to play, but the Panthers’ ability to keep the rebounding margin close and limit second-chance opportunities kept their lead intact.
“That was the key to the game,” Jacobson said. “We talked about (rebounding) the most over the past couple days getting ready for this game. The guys did a good job. (Alize Johnson) hasn’t had many games in two years where he hasn’t had 10 rebounds or more, so that was good for us.”
Klint Carlson led all scorers with 16 points, while Hunter Rhodes and Wyatt Lohaus joined him in double figures with 13 and 11 respectively. Austin Phyfe added nine, making 2 of 3 3-point attempts after having only attempted one 3 this season entering Saturday’s game.
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“That’s as comfortable as I’ve seen (Phyfe),” Jacobson said. “Being able to load up a couple 3s and just the way he played today you could see a little more confidence. We’re going to need (Phyfe and McDonnell) on Thursday. For them to come off a good game is important.”
Next week will mark the first time since 2003 that UNI has played in the first round of the MVC Tournament.
No matter how unlikely winning a tournament championship may be, the opportunity to punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament exists. After Saturday’s win, UNI’s third in its last four games, Jacobson and his team will be taking a one-game-at-a-time approach in St. Louis
“We’re going to go down just to play Thursday,” Jacobson said. “I know our guys believe that we can do well and they will go down with the right mindset and that’s to go down and play Thursday.”
After Saturday’s win, Jacobson updated the status of Koch, UNI’s leading scorer.
“I don’t know if he could’ve gone today or not,” Jacobson said. “All he has done so far is barely jog straight ahead. He’s still got some work to do, but we’ll plan on him being there Thursday.”