CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said that his team’s 64-53 loss to Southern Illinois on Sunday was unexpected. After having won its previous two games against Valparaiso and then Missouri Valley Conference-leading Drake, Jacobson was encouraged by what he saw play out in those two wins.
He also made a point to mention that his team had a new bounce in its step after losing its previous six games before defeating Valparaiso.
“We had a pretty good early-week game on Tuesday against Drake. Right after probably our best overall game against Valpo and then (Sunday) we didn’t have the same stuff,” Jacobson said. “Halftime we’re down four after turning it over eight times and going 4 of 15 from the 3-point line.”
Jacobson said all but two of the Panthers’ 15 first-half 3s against Southern Illinois were quality looks. Going forward he’ll continue to trust his shooters, in large part because of the work outside of practice he says they continue to put in.
An up-and-down Illinois State (10-10, 4-4 MVC) team is what lies ahead for Northern Iowa (10-10, 2-6). The Panthers’ fifth-ranked scoring defense (61.8 points per game) continues to be what they can lean on, but offensive struggles have been persistent since mid-December.
“We’re still going to work to get it to the primary ball-handlers,” Jacobson said in reference to their sputtering transition offense. “But in saying that, even with continuing to go that way, we should be able to get it up the floor. Some of that (transition) stuff still needs to happen for us.”
The Redbirds are led by Keyshawn Evans’ 15.6 points per game. The junior guard is certain to test UNI’s youthful backcourt. Along with the challenges Evans presents, the Panthers lost both of their meetings with Illinois State last season. However, the Redbirds have dropped three of their last four games, most recently suffering a 30-point loss at Indiana State.
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“They’ve got a lot of size and versatility. Keyshawn Evans is a terrific player,” Jacobson said. “You go past (Evans) with the rest of their lineup and a lot of guys with the size and versatility to make it difficult. They can play that man-to-man defense and also switch and play that zone. The biggest thing is their personnel is really good.”
With only 10 games remaining in the regular season, time is running short for the Panthers. A week ago the hope among fans was that the team could find what it had going during the early portion of the season and parlay that into three fortunate days at the conference tournament at the end of February. Now the pulse among fans is to simply play well enough in these last 10 regular-season games to avoid a dreaded Thursday night first-round game in St. Louis.
“In two of our last three games we’ve played really well,” Jacobson said. “I do think that’s important. The mistakes that you make get magnified when you turn it over and when you miss some open shots.”