UNI Panthers

Every win matters in contested Missouri Valley men's basketball race

UNI visits Drake Saturday; only 4 games separate first place from last place

Drake Bulldogs guard Garrett Sturtz (3) leaps for the basket between Northern Iowa Panthers guards Spencer Haldeman (30) and Tywhon Pickford (3) during the first half of a game at McLeod Center in Cedar Falls on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Drake Bulldogs guard Garrett Sturtz (3) leaps for the basket between Northern Iowa Panthers guards Spencer Haldeman (30) and Tywhon Pickford (3) during the first half of a game at McLeod Center in Cedar Falls on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s loss to Bradley on Wednesday made its chances of avoiding Thursday at the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament all the more difficult.

And, on top of that, since adding play-in games for its Nos. 7-10 seeds in 1997, no team has won four games in four days to claim the MVC’s automatic bid.

With unprecedented parity in the Valley — all teams are within four games of each other — UNI Coach Ben Jacobson was non-committal about a play-in team snapping the 22-year streak, but acknowledged the level of competitiveness of all 10 teams.

“Our league is one of the few leagues around the country where there aren’t two, three or four teams that are just really struggling,” Jacobson said. “The teams that are currently, record-wise, in those (7-to-10) spots they’ve already shown they’re capable of beating anybody. They’re capable of winning on the road.”

In its 79-71 loss to Bradley, Jacobson said four consecutive defensive possessions where the Panthers allowed Bradley to score late in the second half ultimately made the difference.

“(Wednesday’s loss) was a combination of some of the basic things,” Jacobson said. “Guarding the ball, making the decision in terms of scouting report, having to make an emergency switch. So it was a little bit of everything in those four possessions.”

Up next for the Panthers is the return game against in-state rival Drake (17-7, 6-5) at 5 p.m. Saturday in Des Moines (NBCS Chicago). The Panthers won the first tilt in Cedar Falls, 57-54.

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“Our ability to get back and set our defense, it forced Drake to have to play offense in the half-court so they aren’t racking up possessions in transition,” Jacobson said. “They’ve been really, really good in the open floor. The fewer possessions they’re able to play in transition, the better for us.”

UNI found success in its first matchup against the Bulldogs with stingy defense — Drake had a nine-minute, 40-second first half scoring drought — and making things difficult for Noah Thomas. Thomas, who replaced Nick Norton (torn ACL) as Drake’s starting point guard in early January, has struggled at times with his larger role. In the first matchup, the sophomore guard scored only four points on 1-of-7 shooting.

UNI’s opportunity to get a much-needed road win could come down to its ability to stall Drake’s offense by shutting down its downhill point guard.

“Part of slowing (Thomas) down a little bit is getting guys back (on defense),” Jacobson said. “And then doing a good job in the ball-screen. They’ll put him into some (ball-screen) situations, so when we are in the half-court we’re going to have to do a good job of keeping him in front of us.”

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