CEDAR FALLS — A dominant second half pushed Northern Iowa past Southern Illinois in men’s basketball Sunday afternoon at McLeod Center, 64-52.
Trailing 34-26 after a lackluster first half, the Panthers quickly put themselves back within a possession of the Salukis (16-13, 10-6) after the break with an 11-0 run.
Isaiah Brown, who scored 15 points on Senior Day, scored seven points during the run and capped it off with a dunk and a 3 to bring the Panthers within a possession at 40-37 with 15:46 to play.
“We know basketball is a game of runs,” Brown said. “The key is just getting stops and going down and getting a bucket. We’re a great team. We have so many different weapons.”
Not long after their initial scoring outburst, the Panthers put together one of their most impressive combinations of offense and defense this season during a 20-0 run.
UNI (23-5, 12-4) held SIU to just four shot attempts and forced four turnovers during the run. Coach Ben Jacobson said it was his team’s best stretch of defense the entire season. He also specifically pointed out Tywhon Pickford’s two offensive rebounds that led to a layup and foul during the run as key moments in a game the Panthers had to have to stay in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“I’ve talked about a couple things in the last two, three days. When I talk about ‘winning time’ I talk about; go to bed a little bit earlier, turn your phone off a little earlier, get a few more shots up during the day,” Jacobson said. “All of those little things that end up making the difference.”
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The Panthers’ last regular season MVC championship came in 2010. Brown pointed out after the game how Jacobson didn’t shy away from addressing the tight conference standings leading up to Sunday’s rematch. Had the Salukis won Sunday, it would have put UNI in a three-way tie with SIU and Loyola-Chicago with only two games to play. UNI can now clinch at least a share of the title when it hosts Evansville (9-20, 0-16) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“The main focus in the locker room was just, (it’s) winning time,” Brown said. “Coach (Jacobson) mentioned to us (that) it’s been four years since he’s been in this position to be playing for a conference championship and he said that’s a long time.”
Brown — among five seniors honored after the game Spencer Haldeman, Luke McDonnell, Justin Dahl and Lincoln Conrey) — scored his 15 points in front of the largest group of family and friends he’s ever had on hand to watch him. The Texas native’s parents and two siblings made a 14-hour overnight drive from Flower Mound, Texas, Friday to walk with their son on Senior Day.
“They made that drive for me and I’m very grateful for them,” Brown said. “I’m used to having a lot of family members and (friends) at all my games. Back in Texas I have a huge support group behind me and it was great for them to be able to watch me play on my Senior (Day) today.”
UNI’s win was also impressive as leading scorer AJ Green struggled, shooting 2-for-12 from the field with nine points.
“It makes it super tough (on opponents) just looking at games that AJ has had this year, they’ve been insane, some of the things he’s done for us,” UNI’s Austin Phyfe said. “Then, an off night, knowing that other guys can step up and make plays it makes it hard scouting us in the future.”