CEDAR FALLS — A big cutback in playing time hasn’t shrunk the role fifth-year senior Luke McDonnell plays for Northern Iowa.
After a medical condition (vasovagal syncope) forced fellow forward Austin Phyfe to miss all but seven games last season, McDonnell stepped into a larger on-court role and responded with Missouri Valley Conference most improved team honors while playing the most important position in a new offense.
Fast forward a season with Phyfe back healthy and minutes have been hard to come by for the fifth-year senior.
“Five years ago when I first came to (UNI) I knew this is where I wanted to be,” McDonnell said. “I knew this team was going to be really special. Everyone on the team is awesome and we all get along so well, so I could have never saw myself leaving.”
Obviously, rather than sulking, growing frustrated or entertaining a transfer, McDonnell has thrived as a player/coach, mentoring Phyfe and backup big men Justin Dahl and James Betz in what has become a breakout season offensively for the Panthers (24-5, 13-4 MVC). UNI can win the Valley title outright with a win at Drake (18-12, 8-9) at 5 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) or a Loyola-Chicago loss to Bradley.
“One of the main things we still talk about is the pace,” McDonnell said. “And as a 5-man you kind of lead that offense with the pace and how fast you play, (how fast) you get into the next action, and then just reading the defense. “(Seeing) the screening angles and seeing through the next defender.”
UNI coach Ben Jacobson has praised McDonnell on multiple occasions this season for the knowledge and attitude he brings to practice. Jacobson’s words aren’t simply coachspeak, as the 14th-year coach has turned to McDonnell on a handful of occasions this season when he wasn’t pleased with the rhythm of his team’s offense.
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“That’s the most valuable thing that’s happening in our program, with Luke (McDonnell) and Lincoln (Conrey),” Jacobson said of the two seniors. “Really what you’re talking about is sacrifice and how do you handle that? Luke has done it as well as you possibly could.”
Phyfe — who’s in the midst of a breakout season and likely ticketed for all-conference honors — explained how McDonnell has continued to have a large impact on the team.
“With me coming back (and) with (Luke’s) in-game experience he was helping me out everyday, just trying to get me caught up with everything that we did,” Phyfe said. “Even as the (season) has gone along he’s been the one when I come up to the bench he’ll tell me things that he sees. That’s something that a fifth-year senior who’s not getting a ton of (playing) time — not everyone is going to do that.”
With only a few more guaranteed games left in his career, McDonnell admits that he only just recently began to think about the end of what’s been an enjoyable career in purple and gold.
“It kind of set in (Wednesday) night a little bit after our game,” McDonnell said. “(It was) the last time warming up in McLeod (Center). Last time for everything, pretty much, which is kind of a sad thing to think about. It’s just a roller coaster of emotions throughout your five years here.”