UNI Panthers

UNI men's basketball isn't celebrating 20-win accomplishment in early February

Panthers maintain humble approach as Drake visits sold-out McLeod Center Saturday

Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — It took Northern Iowa just 23 games to reach the 20-win plateau.

Wednesday’s 63-51 road win at Valparaiso (12-12, 5-6) clinched the first time since the 2015-16 season that the Panthers (20-3, 9-2) have eclipsed 20 wins.

Despite the accomplishment, UNI men’s basketball coach Ben Jacobson has said multiple times this season that his team’s record is not something that comes up in the locker room, practice floor, or anywhere else.

So, after reaching a respectable accomplishment of 20 wins in early January, did UNI’s win-loss record finally make its way into the team’s conversation?

“No, it didn’t,” Jacobson said with a laugh. “So, it still hasn’t come up. It’s still not something that we’ve talked about.”

Despite the Panthers’ humble approach, they continue to impress by finding different ways to win whenever a key player encounters struggles.

Against Valparaiso, Trae Berhow — second on the team in scoring, averaging 13.8 points per game — struggled with only six points on 1-for-7 shooting, but made contributions elsewhere with 11 rebounds and four assists.

Elsewhere in the rotation, freshmen Antwan Kimmons and Noah Carter helped out with 12 points combined against the Crusaders in just 20 minutes of combined playing time.

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“I think if anything we’re seeing them pick up some steam,” Jacobson said of the two freshmen. “It feels like those two guys are picking up some confidence. They’ve earned their way into what’s going to be important spots for us here.”

Next up for the Panthers is their first tilt this season against in-state rival Drake (16-8, 6-5). The Bulldogs have only one road Missouri Valley Conference win this season, but are coming off a 73-60 win at home against Bradley (15-9, 6-5).

“Watching them against Bradley, man, they played great,” Jacobson said. “Their roster is built with the big kid (Liam) Robbins inside. He’s improved a bunch from last year. So they’ve got a ton of options with him in that center position. That roster is built very well for the offensive end of the floor.”

UNI center Austin Phyfe — who forced preeminent Valley center Cameron Krutwig of Loyola-Chicago to take 19 shots to reach 19 points in their only meeting this season — has proved himself capable of going toe-to-toe with a center the caliber of Robbins.

Other than the Phyfe-Robbins match up, who Drake matches up against AJ Green is also a key component of Saturday’s 3 p.m. game (Fox Sports Midwest).

“I think they’ll press up on him and go over the top of the ball-screen stuff in transition. Go over the top of the hand-offs and ball-screens in the halfcourt,” Jacobson said. “And then they may trap him some. Some of what we’ve seen in the last three or four games in particular.”

Another important factor Saturday is a sold-out McLeod Center. It’s the venue’s first sellout since top-ranked North Carolina visited in 2015.

“We’re looking forward to that,” Jacobson said. “I mentioned it to them after the Valpo game. You could see it in their eyes — they’re looking forward to it. It’s different when there’s 6,500 as opposed to 5,200. Can’t wait.”

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