ST. LOUIS — Northern Iowa ended up on the wrong side of history Friday.
For the first time ever at the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament the No. 8-seed upset the No. 1-seed as Drake defeated UNI, 77-56, at Enterprise Center.
As it did many times throughout the second half of the season, UNI got off to a slow start, missing 11 of its first 13 field goal attempts.
Anthony Murphy’s third 3-pointer of the first half put the Panthers behind by 17, 36-19, and while UNI struggled to find net, the Bulldogs hit 6 of 10 first-half 3s. Drake looked like a completely different team after suffering a 70-43 defeat at home to UNI less than a week ago.
“I felt like there were some plays at the offensive end we didn’t execute, some of the things at the end of offensive possessions as well as we have, and it didn’t feel like we blocked out,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “So, both of those things were going on and Drake was playing good basketball.”
UNI didn’t go out without a legitimate comeback bid, though.
An 11-3 run to open the second half trimmed Drake’s lead to 46-44 as Spencer Haldeman, AJ Green and Austin Phyfe shook off their first-half shooting woes.
Phyfe provided the biggest injection of hope as his layup accompanied by a foul after an impressive offensive rebound erased UNI fans’ nervous energy and brought the loudest cheers of the game.
“We were just overthinking some things and not playing our type of basketball,” Phyfe said. “Then in the second half, getting the crowd into (it) a bit and having some momentum was really big for us.”
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UNI’s hopes of a comeback didn’t last long. Still trailing by two less than four minutes later, the Bulldogs caught a second wind and put together what became a game-clinching 18-0 run that included 14 points from Roman Penn, who scored a game-high 26.
Green led UNI with 19 points, but needed 25 shots to reach the total. Isaiah Brown was the only other Panther to reach double figures with 11.
“I think I was able to get to some of my spots, but I think I might have just rushed it a few times too early in the possession,” Green said. “I maybe didn’t just stick with what we were doing a week ago, just letting our offense work for us, and then when I have shots, just shoot it.”
Entering this weekend’s conference tournament the speculation from bracketologists and analysts indicated that a semifinal appearance would at the very least be necessary for UNI to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
As the MVC regular-season champion, UNI is guaranteed an NIT berth should it not hear its name called on Selection Sunday. However, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi tweeted an update to his bracket after Friday’s loss that had the Panthers as one of the last four teams in the NCAA field.
“These guys have done an unbelievable job,” Jacobson said. “From January 1 on, we’ve been pretty well between 26 and 40 (in the rankings), and that’s an NCAA Tournament team.