CEDAR FALLS — A 9-2 run late in the second half gave Northern Iowa the separation it needed to hold off a relentless Valparaiso team Saturday night at McLeod Center, 64-53.
Clinging to a 43-41 lead with 7:21 to play, Wyatt Lohaus began the run with a transition 3. Less than a minute later, Spencer Haldeman was fouled by Deion Lavender 25 feet away from the basket to put UNI into the bonus. After building an eight-point lead, the Panthers — who went 15 of 17 from the free throw line — made four of their final six free throws to extend their winning streak to four.
“We’ve had some different (challenges) in the past four games, some different moments that have come our way and there’s been a lot of growth in terms of answering the challenge,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said.
A 10-2 run early in the first half along with a stingy defense that held the Crusaders (14-15, 7-9) scoreless for over six minutes gave UNI (14-15, 9-7) a 30-23 lead at the break. However, the Panthers struggled to score in the early going of the second half, hitting only two of their 11 shots and allowing Valparaiso (14-15, 7-9) to get back within a possession.
Lohaus explained that having a downhill mentality on offense ultimately made the difference down the stretch.
“I think maybe earlier in the year we would’ve settled a little more,” Lohaus said. “Having the discipline to kind of not let the defense have a break and put it on them (helped).”
After being out-rebounded by 14 in its loss to Valparaiso in January the Panthers responded with a 31-29 advantage Saturday night. Senior forward Luke McDonnell — who scored 13 points and made 7 of 8 free throws — said, “we kind of owed them one, us big guys” on the glass.
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AJ Green paced UNI with a game-high 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Green hit multiple shots late in the shot clock as the Panthers limited Valparaiso’s opportunity at a comeback by chewing up game clock.
“I think the game has slowed down for (Green),” Jacobson said. “His comfort level and the confidence he’s playing with, the pace he’s playing at now, is a result of him having a bunch of games under his belt.”
Jacobson added that after back-to-back losses to Bradley and Drake, a recommitment to defense is what’s made UNI’s four-game win streak possible.
“Our guys have answered that (defensive) challenge from us as their coaches,” Jacobson said.
Northern Iowa hosts Loyola (17-11, 10-5) Wednesday night at McLeod Center at 7 p.m.