UNI Panthers

UNI men's basketball crushes Drake to clinch outright Valley championship

Panthers end regular season with 70-43 road win

Northern Iowa's Austin Phyfe is fouled on the way to the basket by Drake's Anthony Murphy, right, during the first half
Northern Iowa's Austin Phyfe is fouled on the way to the basket by Drake's Anthony Murphy, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP)

DES MOINES — Stingy defense and a second half outburst from Noah Carter helped push Northern Iowa past Drake, 70-43, at Knapp Center Saturday night.

The Panthers’ win secured an outright regular season Missouri Valley Conference championship.

“I was hoping this would happen, so I didn’t clean (my) sport coat after Wednesday,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “It means a lot.”

UNI’s defense led the way in creating a 12 point halftime lead as it held Drake (18-13, 8-10) to 18 points in the game’s first 20 minutes. However, the Bulldogs shrunk UNI’s lead to seven less than five minutes into the second half, leading to an unorthodox move from Jacobson.

With a sold-out Knapp Center ready to erupt, the 14th-year head coach sent 6-foot-6 Carter in at the 5, matching up with Drake’s 7-foot center Liam Robbins.

“I just wanted to see if we could get a 3 before Robbins got a two,” Jacobson said. “It happened to work out.”

Carter responded with 11 points in eight minutes as UNI (25-5, 14-4) extended its lead to 51-36 by the time he checked back out of the lineup.

“My first thought was, ‘he’s going to have to guard me too,’” Carter said. “Whatever came open to me I was going to try to take and it just happened (to work out).”

After struggling in this season’s first game with the Bulldogs in Cedar Falls, Austin Phyfe bounced back with a 17-point, 18-rebound double-double.

The sophomore forward had a season-high five turnovers in UNI’s narrow win over the Bulldogs back on Feb. 8 while Robbins scored a team-high 17.

Phyfe explained postgame how he adjusted ahead of Saturday night’s matchup.

“He’s a great player. He’s big and long, but I know if I can get into him a little bit more and just kind of get a little bit of separation with how long he is (I can) maybe get a shot,” Phyfe said. “On defense, just staying solid and make him score over top of me.”

Phyfe’s 18 rebounds marked the second consecutive game with the impressive total. Asked if there are any comparisons for what Phyfe’s done lately on the glass, Jacobson had to go back over two decades.

“Not since Joe Breckenridge,” Jacobson said. “That just speaks to (Phyfe’s) effort.”

Isaiah Brown and AJ Green joined Phyfe and Carter in double figures with 15 points apiece.

Brown has arguably been on the best stretch of his career the past three weeks. The senior guard has scored in double figures in five consecutive games and didn’t mince words after the win on the Panthers’ plans for the conference tournament next week.

“No matter who we play in St. Louis we’re going to be ready,” Brown said. “I think tonight was great for us.”

UNI clinched the No. 1-seed in its win Wednesday against Evansville. Loyola-Chicago clinched the No. 2-seed with a one-point win over Bradley on Saturday. Indiana State’s NET ranking pushes the Sycamores ahead of Bradley for the No. 3-seed as the tiebreaker. The Braves (4), Southern Illinois (5) and Missouri State (6) round out the Friday teams, while Evansville and Valparaiso match up in Thursday’s 7-10 game and the Bulldogs and Illinois State play the 8-9 game.

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UNI plays the winner of Drake and Illinois State (10-20, 5-13) at noon Friday at Enterprise Center in St. Louis (CBSSN).

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