CEDAR FALLS — The refrain was the same on Saturday for the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, more of the same meant more struggles — at historic levels, this time — and more hand-wringing in the wake of a loss. UNI set a McLeod Center record for lowest point total in a 51-41 loss to Loyola, and in the process dropped its first Missouri Valley Conference game at home since 2013-14 — a stretch of 14 games.
The players and Coach Ben Jacobson insist the locker room still is together. They insist the team is working hard in practice. They insist they’re locked in and focused.
It makes finding an answer for what’s unfolded in the last few weeks that much harder.
“Boy, it was a struggle from the tip. Offensively, we just could not get any traction,” Jacobson said. “We couldn’t get three, four, five possessions in a row to just get the feel that we had something to get enthused about. It just was a hard game from the tip to get onto that track tonight.
“I don’t have a great answer, I don’t think, as to why. It was really hard to get going.”
The offensive struggles reached new lows for this season on Saturday.
UNI (10-9, 2-4 MVC) had set a season low in the second half of the loss at Indiana State with 23 points, and followed it up Saturday with 22 points in the first half and just 19 in the second. The Panthers shot 13 of 48 from the field (27.1 percent), 7 of 24 from deep (29.2 percent), committed 13 turnovers and had just eight assists as a team.
Much of what gave the Panthers success in non-conference play was the high ball screen that allowed Wes Washpun to drive to the lane and create shots — either for himself or others. But in at least four of the six MVC games so far, that option has been taken away by the opposition. Loyola (8-10, 1-5) had success against it, resulting in Washpun having four points, seven rebounds and no assists — the latter for the first time this season.
“This happens when you get into league play. Teams are going to do a good job of making things harder for you,” Jacobson said. “You start with the things the team does best. Defensively, both Indiana State and Loyola did a good job of limiting some of the ball movement that we had against Drake. They’ve got enough guys that can guard the ball, they made it tougher for Wes. They guarded the ball screen well. That’s been a big part of our offense. We had very little of that in the second half against Indiana State, we couldn’t get that going again tonight.”
UNI’s lack of an inside presence didn’t help matters, either.
Bennett Koch, Ted Friedman and Klint Carlson combined for four points and five rebounds total. Jacobson said the initial plan was to work the ball in much more than he did, and that in not following through on that plan, “part of that is on me for not running the right stuff and getting the guys in the right place. We needed to get more touches on the block. We needed to force them to defend down there, and we did not. We didn’t do a good job of that.”
When the options are so limited, it exacerbates the issues outside, he said. Finding ways to get them in positive situations down there is a priority going forward.
Over the last 60 minutes of basketball — the second half against Indiana State and Saturday against Loyola — the Panthers have put up just 64 total points, and have shot 20 of 74 from the field (27 percent) and 6 of 24 from 3-point range (25 percent). They’ve also committed 19 turnovers in that span.
Almost all of the 40 minutes on Saturday were rough for UNI, but at the roughest points, they didn’t answer in a way that Jacobson-led teams typically answer.
Jeremy Morgan, who led UNI with 15 points, said the Panthers need “just a little bit of heart, a little bit of passion — playing the game we love like we actually love it. We’ve all got to find whatever it is that makes us go and go.”
Why that hasn’t happened, none of them are certain. But a look at themselves in the mirror is required now.
With Wichita State coming Wednesday, there’s no question what they work on has to translate into games much more effectively, they said.
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“We’ve got to have some carry-over into games. We do some things in practice, we work a lot and it doesn’t seem like we have great carry-over into games,” said Paul Jesperson, who struggled to nine points on 3 of 12 shooting. “I thought we were a little bit (soft). It was something Coach mentioned to us in practice the other day, rebounding-wise. I thought we had stretches where we were soft a little bit. We can’t have those stretches, not with this team.”
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