CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s game against Bradley on Saturday at Carver Arena in Peoria, Ill., is its most important Missouri Valley Conference game of the season.
It’s likely the Panthers and Braves will contend for the regular-season championship.
While UNI (15-2, 4-1) has yet to play four of its conference opponents, its second game against the Braves comes just 14 days after a hard-fought 69-64 win back on Jan. 4 at McLeod Center.
AJ Green pushed the Panthers past Bradley (13-5, 4-1) in their first go-around with 35 points on 10-of-21 shooting and a career-high seven 3s.
Since a season-low five-point performance in a 60-55 loss to West Virginia at the Cancun Challenge in November, Green is averaging 24.4 points per game. Through UNI’s five Valley games, he is 42 of 77 from the field, 22 of 41 from 3 and a perfect 24 for 24 from the free throw line.
“Confidence is a big part of it,” UNI associate head coach and Green’s father, Kyle Green said. “(The) ball starts to go in and you start to get comfortable and confident and it’s amazing how the game changes. (He’s) probably made a little more concerted effort to drive it and get fouled. I think it’s something he learned in the West Virginia game. He’s a pretty good student of the game so I think he learned a lot in the first half of that non-conference season.”
Austin Phyfe (10 points) was the only other Panther to join AJ Green in double figures in their win over Bradley. In the three games since, the sophomore guard has gotten plenty of help with Trae Berhow averaging 14.3 points per game, Isaiah Brown 13.6 and Phyfe 11.7.
“I think we’ve grown a lot with our ability to play through tough stretches in games,” Kyle Green said. “They’ve become shorter in terms of one or two turnovers haven’t led to a five or six minute drought offensively. We’ve been a little more consistent with our effort.”
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The Braves will be without all-conference forward Elijah Childs on Saturday. Childs had missed three games with a hand injury before returning against UNI two weeks ago. He re-injured his hand in the loss and Bradley announced two days later that he would miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery.
“They’ve played Ja’Shon Henry more. He’s jumped into the starting lineup and he’s played well,” Kyle Green said. “In the last couple games they’ve shot the ball from the perimeter much better than they had been going into our (first) game. And then they are running more actions for (Darrell) Brown and (Nate) Kennell.”
Green says UNI’s 15-2 record hasn’t gone to the players’ heads. The Panthers associate head coach says he likes the vibe the team has and the work ethic it continues to demonstrate.
“Coach (Ben Jacobson) does a great job of really drilling home that we just have to take it and do what we’ve done to this point,” Kyle Green said.