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CEDAR FALLS — If there was an overarching message from Northern Iowa men’s basketball coach Ben Jacobson after his team’s third straight loss — a 74-55 setback to Missouri Valley Conference leader Wichita State — it was that the Panthers haven’t made things any easier on themselves.
From the way he and his staff are implementing the game plan to how it’s executed, mistakes and inconsistency have played havoc on their season.
Searching for ways to make the offense flow regardless of how intense or skilled the opposing defenses are in the MVC has to be the top priority, Jacobson said. Until then, the struggles will continue, as they did in UNI’s worst loss in McLeod Center history.
“I think it starts with — and I talked about it this week — we have to keep finding ways to make things a little easier. That’s where it starts,” Jacobson said. “Tonight we did a better job of throwing the ball into Bennett, and he was effective. That allowed us to play a little better in the second half, throwing the ball inside. We’ve got to work to add that to what we’re doing. Without that, guarding the ball screen and stretching out to deny those wings is too easy without that in there. That’s where it starts.
“We’ve got guys that can shoot the ball. Right now there’s a couple of them that are struggling a little bit from a confidence standpoint, but I’ve got to find ways to make it a little easier for them at that end of the floor.”
The Panthers (10-10, 2-5 MVC) had stretches against the Shockers (13-5, 7-0) in which they’d string baskets together and pull within a two-possession deficit, but could never quite get over the hump of a 34-22 halftime score.
Jacobson pointed to a few possessions late in the first half that led to baskets for Wichita State that made the few comeback attempts harder than they might’ve needed to be. The Shockers shot 56.5 percent from the field and had 30 points in the paint — owing to some of the easy shots on mistakes on defense.
Not being able to find consistency in backing up defensive stops with shots, or a string of scores with defensive stops ultimately did the Panthers in. It’s easier said than done, to be certain, but UNI players and coaches knew they didn’t help themselves in a few key spots.
“When you talk out loud, it sounds a little easier. But when you’re out there, it’s a little tougher,” said Matt Bohannon, who had 14 points. “Maybe at times we’re making it tougher on ourselves by not doing what we should, but at the end of the day we’ve got to take pride and understand every possession counts.
“That’s something this team hasn’t caught onto yet. From top to bottom, we haven’t put stops together in a consistent manner. What made us so good last year was we took pride in our defense. We told ourselves they weren’t going to score on us. We haven’t found that this year.”
The shooting woes continued for the Panthers, as they went 16 of 49 from the field overall (32.7 percent) and 8 of 24 (33.3 percent) from 3-point range. Wes Washpun (14 points, seven rebounds, seven assists), Paul Jesperson (eight points) and Jeremy Morgan (three points) went a combined 8 of 27 from the field.
When shots aren’t falling, any lapses on defense are exposed much quicker, Jacobson said. Guarding Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker is hard enough, but not being able to answer them makes it that much harder.
“Until we get on a little better track offensively — it’s been fine until the game and a half coming into this one — until we get figured out exactly how that’s going to be a little easier for our team, the defensive mistakes get magnified. That’s the bottom line,” Jacobson said. “We’ve got to continue to work to limit those mistakes defensively, and we’ve got to do a great job rebounding the ball until things get easier for us on offense.
“Any time you’re struggling, at this level, with the teams we’re playing and get into conference play where teams know you well — any time you get into that situation and you’re not clicking on all cylinders, everything gets magnified.”
With UNI now headed to Normal, Ill., to face Illinois State, Jacobson put it on himself to figure out the fix.
He’s been through enough to know how not to let the frustration over a rough stretch seep into his preparation — thereby transferring to his players’ preparation. With back-to-back road games next, Jacobson’s mantra of making things easier for his team is the chief priority to snapping the losing streak.
“Having been through this, having done this long enough and enough times, my job is to do everything I can to make it easy for them on offense and drive them on defense to defend right without making mistakes, and to rebound,” Jacobson said. “I’ve got to do those things at a really high level, and I should. That’s my job. Right now I’ve got to help our guys on offense.”
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