116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — Vibes are good right now for Northern Iowa men’s basketball, but certain challenges persist.
An 80-74 overtime win against Indiana State Tuesday night extended its winning streak to four games, but included a step backward on recent defensive progress. And Coach Ben Jacobson said postgame his team got outplayed.
Along with its typical game-to-game challenges to address, UNI continues to navigate day-to-day challenges with its all-Missouri Valley Conference center Austin Phyfe, who’s battling ongoing complications from a summer COVID-19 infection.
After starting all 25 games last season and averaging 27 minutes, the Waverly-Shell Rock grad has been limited to 16.6 minutes per game this season and missed two games as he works toward what’s become a stubborn rebuilding of his cardiovascular strength.
“They have me on a couple things. An inhaler trying to help improve the symptoms. They’re doing everything they can,” Phyfe said of his treatment. “What it is, is like scarring of the lungs. So I’ll get a little tightness in the chest as well and it kind of just brings me to a point where I just can’t breathe technically. It’s very hard just to take a deep breath when I’m going up and down.”
Despite the seesaw of good days and bad, Phyfe’s teammates and coaches have lauded the positive attitude and permanent smile he brings to the team everyday.
“It’s something that’s hard just because of the virus and how unsure so many people are,” Phyfe said. “I’m just trying to keep my spirits high knowing that there might be a couple nights where (I) maybe don’t play or don’t play very many minutes. I just want to be able to take that leadership role and do as much as I can whether that be on the floor or on the bench.”
When it comes to embracing the role he finds himself in there’s plenty Phyfe offers as his position in the Panthers’ flow offense is essentially a basketball quarterback.
Sophomore Noah Carter and freshman Cole Henry have absorbed many of Phyfe’s minutes and his communication with both has been a key component.
“I’ve been very proud of them,” Phyfe said. “(I’m) just telling them what I see from the bench. Noah has a phenomenal ability to score the basketball and his passing has got a lot better, too, from that five spot.
“That’s, I’d say, the perfect spot for (Henry’s) game. His ability to pass is phenomenal. Then, just his pace and athleticism that he’s able to play with really gets our offense moving.”
UNI travels to Southern Illinois (9-6, 2-1) Saturday for a 7 p.m. tipoff at Banterra Center (ESPN+).