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CEDAR FALLS — At the beginning of this week, eight of the Missouri Valley Conference’s 12 men’s basketball teams were either in a tie for first or second in the league standings.
“Parity” quickly has become a buzzword among the league’s coaches.
That parity was on display Saturday when Northern Iowa put its four-game winning streak on the line in its first trip to Belmont (13-6, 6-2). The Panthers (9-9, 5-3) fell behind the Bruins by 16 with 13:01 remaining in the second half, but battled back to 70-68 with 1:41 to play before seeing their comeback bid come up short, 76-72.
“For that group — the three freshmen out there and (Drew Daniel) and Tytan (Anderson), for the most part it was that group the last 12 minutes — to be able to defend Belmont the way we did I thought was really good,” UNI Coach Ben Jacobson said.
While its winning streak was snapped, the game was an example of what’s become a wide-open regular-season championship race. With six weeks left in the regular season, Jacobson pointed out the areas his team can improve after watching film of the loss to Belmont.
“We weren’t as aggressive defensively in the first half and that was a shared (mistake),” Jacobson said. “That was an area that we did not do a good enough job. We weren’t aggressive enough defensively and we didn’t defend the 3-point line well enough in the first half.”
Saturday’s loss was far from devastating, but Bowen Born’s absence from the last 10 minutes of the game with an apparent injury loomed large in the aftermath.
Asked about the sophomore guard’s health on Monday, Jacobson acknowledged nothing more than a day-to-day status for the MVC’s leading scorer.
“His calf tightened up on him (against Belmont),” Jacobson said. “I don’t know that I would have put him back in the game no matter what that score had gotten to. The calf tightened up on him and at that point with what he’s been dealing with the past 2 1/2 weeks it was time to get him out and get to some rest.
“He’s doing better (Monday).”
Next up for UNI is its first rematch of its conference schedule against Illinois State at home at 7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN+).
The Redbirds (8-11, 3-5) are not among the eight league teams provoking the parity discussion, but they have won two of their last three games, including a 10-point win last Wednesday against Missouri State — a team that dealt the Panthers a 12-point home loss three weeks ago.
“They’ve leveled up defensively. I think they’re doing some things that they weren’t doing a couple weeks ago when we saw them,” Jacobson said. “A little bit like our team. When we saw each other a couple weeks ago I think we were both trying to really figure some things out.”