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ST. LOUIS — Dreams of dancing in the NCAA Tournament quickly became a nightmare Saturday afternoon at Enterprise Center, as Loyola-Chicago beat Northern Iowa, 66-43, in a Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament semifinal game.
The No. 4-seed Ramblers put forth what was likely their best defensive performance of the season as they extended pressure well past the 3-point line, executed double teams on No. 1-seed UNI’s ballhandlers and disrupted passing lanes.
“I think we were in their bodies. I thought we were allowed to play with more physicality,” Loyola-Chicago head coach Drew Valentine said. “We were getting over, getting through ball screens.”
A 1-for-11 start from the field proved a sign of things to come for UNI, as the Panthers finished the game with just 13 made field goals on 23-percent shooting (13-56).
“The games have been really, really physical all year. So, I don’t know that that was what had us off to a slow start. I really don’t,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “When you get down here for the tournament, the games are going to be physical. They got out to that lead and it made for a tough (situation), climbing uphill all day.”
Runs of 9-0 and 8-0 by the Ramblers at the beginning and end of the first half left UNI with a 16-point deficit at the break. Less than five minutes into the second half, though, signs of halftime adjustments looked to be paying off as a Trae Berhow corner 3 got the Panthers within eight with 15:12 to play.
However, as was the case in the first half, Loyola continued to respond — creating open looks and making contested shots.
“They were making tough shots,” Berhow said. “We’d defend them pretty much the whole possession and then they’d find one player open, either in the corner or somewhere on top and make the shot. Or, they get a bounce out offensive rebound, putback (or) something like that. We just couldn’t chip away at that.”
After the Berhow 3, the Panthers failed to cash in on opportunities to stay within single digits, and an epic field-goal drought came to be as UNI scored only 10 points the rest of the way — all at the free-throw line — and missed its final 16 attempts from the field.
“Certainly, the way that we’ve played offensively — last week, we had a tremendous week against Missouri State, against Indiana State and against Loyola at home — but we’ve been playing that way for a pretty good stretch now. It just was a little slower going that first four, five, six minutes,” Jacobson said. “We had it close again right before the half and they had a really good finish to the half and that kind of minute-and-a-half to two minutes — that was a big part of that game.”
Loyola’s Braden Norris scored a game-high 19 points and was joined in double figures by Marquise Kennedy (13) and Ryan Schwieger (12).
Green led UNI with 13 points on 4-of-20 shooting and was the only Panther in double figures as Berhow scored eight and Noah Carter was limited to just seven points on 2-of-11 shooting.
“Last game versus Noah Carter — he’s a good player, he’s a good player don’t get me wrong — but a lot of it was just our approach with him. It was our mentality. How much we were sagging off of him,” Valentine said. “He loves to get into his right hand in the post and has a really nice jump-hook over his left shoulder, but you saw he took probably three left-handed or right shoulder post shots. So, it’s just sticking to the scouting report.”
Despite its loss, UNI (19-11) will continue its season in just over a week when the National Invitational Tournament begins on March 15. The 32-team field will be revealed during the NIT selection show on March 13.
“We’ll regroup and we’ll get to that,” Jacobson said in regards to the NIT. “These guys, I told them in the locker room, that they’ve done as good a job as we’ve had done in our program. They’ve put on a big-time show for two months-plus now. They’ve been awesome.”