CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois combined for nine points through the first 8:50 of what looked like a holiday hangover matchup Thursday night with the Salukis gaining their first ever win at McLeod Center, 56-53.
Once the considerable offensive struggles subsided for each team, the Panthers (8-5, 0-1) got a seven-point spurt from Tywhon Pickford in the latter part of the first half. Juwan McCloud and Wyatt Lohaus — who joined Pickford in bringing UNI’s offense out of the doldrums — capped the first half with a layup and jump shot, respectively, to gain a six-point lead with under a minute remaining, but a Marcus Bartley 3-pointer kept the Salukis (9-5, 1-0) within three at the half.
“When you’re at home and you’ve got your conference opener at home — and we had another great crowd — so you want to get out and get going,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “It took us a long time to really get anything going on offense. Unfortunately I think that just kind of set the mood for the entire night.”
Bartley, and the Southern Illinois defense, became key factors in the second half. UNI’s offensive struggles never completely went away as persistent double-teams of Bennett Koch frustrated the senior who finished with five points on 2-of-8 shooting.
“(Southern Illinois) crowded the post. I think we needed to do a better job of getting it out of there,” Jacobson said. “(We) talked to Bennett about getting it inside-out, instead of trying to go through the two and three defenders when he turned.”
Bartley finished with a game-high four 3-pointers, two coming on back-to-back possessions at the midway point of the second half. Bartley’s first 3 gave Southern Illinois a lead they would not relinquish; the second extended the lead to 39-35 with just over nine minutes to play.
“We let Bartley stand there and shoot that 3,” Jacobson said. “Wyatt knows he’s supposed to press into him and he lets him shoot that 3 and then the next possession they run a play for him that we’d gone over for two straight days and they were able to get it and he makes another 3. So he gets six quick points on plays that shouldn’t happen. So as much as we struggled offensively — even if we take those two plays away — it’s at least a tie game with two minutes left.”
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With its leading scorer Koch struggling to score on Southern Illinois’ Kavion Pippen — who scored a game-high 14 points — UNI, playing without Spencer Haldeman (back spasms), could not muster enough offense from the backcourt to makeup for its missed defensive assignments. A Klint Carlson layup with 4:22 to play pulled the Panthers back within two, but Bartley’s earlier 3-pointers boosted his teammates, as Aaron Cook and Armon Fletcher both hit 3s down the stretch to prevent a UNI comeback.
“Tonight’s game counts as one. It doesn’t count as two, three, or four,” Jacobson said. “I’m curious to see tomorrow how we snap back and start our preparation.”
UNI visits Bradley (10-4, 0-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday (ESPN3).