CEDAR FALLS — An improved defensive effort and a continuation of recent offensive efficiency led Northern Iowa past Illinois State 77-64 Wednesday night at McLeod Center.
A quick 6-0 run by the Redbirds (14-12, 7-6) late in the second half trimmed UNI’s lead to 66-59 with 3:54 to play, but UNI responded with an 8-0 run and made all four of its free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
“After not having defended and rebounded in particular and (not) battled through some individual plays the way we’re capable of, or the way that we need to, the response I thought was great tonight,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “Without it, we get beat again. We’re capable of playing at a high level. We just had guys do their job.”
UNI (11-15, 6-7) was led by Trae Berhow, who scored a career-high 20 points. Spencer Haldeman (16), AJ Green (13) and Isaiah Brown (10) joined Berhow in double-figures.
Berhow admitted that Jacobson challenged him this week at practice after suffering two tough losses a week ago.
“Coach (Jacobson) has been on me quite a bit about defense lately,” Berhow said. “So, I mean, it was time to step up. I think we stepped it up in practice which really transferred to the court.”
A season-high 16 3s helped UNI build its 12-point halftime lead. In the game’s final nine minutes, after a Keyshawn Evans 3 trimmed the Panthers lead to two, Green, Berhow, Brown and Haldeman each connected from beyond the arc.
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Along with its 52-percent mark from distance UNI, hit 15 of its 16 free-throw attempts to complete what Jacobson thought was one of its most complete performances of the season.
“For sure at the offensive end,” Jacobson said. “I’ll have to take a look to see defensively. It’s going to be right up there in our top couple (games) defensively, for sure. On offense tonight, I thought the guys snapped that ball around. I thought AJ made two or three really good passes.”
With five league games remaining and virtually every game a must-win to avoid the opening round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Jacobson explained what it will take to build off the performance against the Redbirds.
“I think you got to count on the experiences we just had,” Jacobson said. “I would tell you just the last 10 days it’s important that we learn from what just happened in the last 10 days.”
UNI returns to action at 3 p.m. Sunday when it travels to Evansville (10-16, 4-9).