CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa took care of business Wednesday night at McLeod Center, defeating Evansville 84-64 to clinch at least a share of the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship and complete a perfect record at home (16-0).
“Undefeated at home. I feel like all around the NCAA it’s hard to beat anybody at home, but I feel like we’ve been one of the hardest teams in the NCAA to beat at home,” UNI’s Trae Berhow said.
“Personally I’ve never won a conference championship, (but) I want to wait, we’ve got one more game. I want that individual (championship) just for us to be there alone. It feels great to know we’re going to have a championship no matter what”
The Panthers can wrap up the title outright with a win Saturday against Drake or a Loyola-Chicago loss to Bradley.
UNI’s 13-point halftime lead Wednesday didn’t create a secure feeling as the Purple Aces (9-21, 0-17) continually fought back from sizable deficits multiple times in the first 20 minutes.
Evansville pestered UNI briefly into the second half. Jawaun Newton’s layup at 14:49 brought the Purple Aces within two possessions at 52-46.
“Tip the cap to Evansville,” Jacobson said. “They’ve played really well for a month.”
As they did in the first half, the Panthers (24-5, 13-4) gained separation on the Purple Aces when 6-foot-6 freshman Noah Carter entered the game at center.
A 20-6 second-half run by UNI over 7:46 included five points from both Carter and AJ Green and put to rest any thoughts of an Evansville upset.
“I just tell myself everyday that if I get an opportunity, take it,” Carter said. “Coach (Jacobson) in the locker room said whether I don’t play a game, like last game, or if I play tonight just be ready. I think I’ve done well in that spot, so just got to continue to work.”
With a comfortable 81-61 lead and 1:31 to play Jacobson substituted seniors Justin Dahl, Luke McDonnell and Lincoln Conrey into the game and the trio received a standing ovation.
“Our six seniors help a lot with (our chemistry),” Berhow said. “(This) team has the most heart and I feel like we give that every game.”
Green led all scorers with 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting and was joined in double figures by Berhow (16), Isaiah Brown (12), Carter (11), and Austin Phyfe (10). Green revealed after the win how UNI’s 2-0 road trip earlier this season at then-No. 24 Colorado and Grand Canyon cemented the team’s thoughts of what it could accomplish this season.
The Panthers finish the regular season with a trip to Des Moines to face Drake (18-12, 8-9) at 5 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) with an outright Valley title on the line.
“In-state rival. We always take that game personally,” Berhow said. “We’ve been wanting to prove and prove throughout the whole season we’re the best team. We’ve kept our focus throughout the whole season so I don’t think nothing is going to change for us for this last game.”