CEDAR FALLS — In the most wide-open Missouri Valley Conference race in years, Northern Iowa still has a lot of ground to make up following a 2-6 start.
A few more performances like Wednesday night will rapidly close the gap.
The Panthers held Illinois State scoreless for a 9-minute, 39-second stretch, going on a 25-0 run in the process to earn an 83-72 win in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
Three days after a sluggish showing in a 64-53 loss to Southern Illinois in which they had as many turnovers as field goals in the first half, the Panthers dominated on both ends in the opening 20 minutes, connecting on seven 3-pointers and holding the Redbirds without a field goal for a 10:34 stretch.
“You want to start each game that way if you can,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “But coming off of Sunday, where we just didn’t have a very good bounce in our step, to be able to get out tonight and to really get going, not only was it good, but it was fun to see.”
“Against SIU, we came out lackadaisical,” added point guard Juwan McCloud, who had a career-high nine assists and six steals. “We wanted to come out with a lot more energy.”
Much of that energy came from an explosive effort from behind the 3-point line. Spencer Haldeman started the 25-0 run with a triple, one of six UNI hit during the stretch.
Three of those long-range jumpers came courtesy of Isaiah Brown, who led UNI with 20 points.
Not pleased with his production in recent games, Brown said his coaches pounded into his head the importance of being aggressive from the perimeter, advice he took to heart Wednesday.
“Coach can’t stress enough for me to shoot with confidence,”said Brown, who had five 3s on the night while also blocking three shots. “When I shoot with confidence, I feel like it goes in more than it doesn’t. If I don’t shoot it, it won’t go in.”
Bennett Koch finished with 17 points, while Wyatt Lohaus was also in double figures with 14. Lohaus also also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.
It wasn’t all roses for the Panthers, who surrendered nine offensive rebounds and nine 3s in the second half, helping the Redbirds, who had 24 second-chance points for the game, cut heavily into a lead that reached as high as 31 points.
But the too-little-too-late rally did little to damper the spirits of the Panthers, who worked their way out of last place in the Valley for the first time.
With three straight wins at home, the Panthers have yet to see any success follow them on the road, where they’re winless in five tries this season, something they know needs to be corrected if they wish to be taken seriously as a Valley contender.
“Being on our home floor provides (a big boost) for us,” McCloud said. “Now we’ve just got to do it again on the road.”
Doing so won’t be easy. Awaiting the Panthers Sunday is a 3 p.m. road contest at Loyola, which is now alone in first place in the league following an 80-57 win over Drake Wednesday.
MCCLOUD CENTER: McCloud’s stellar performance wasn’t merely a career night.
The sophomore guard’s six steals were the most in the history of the McLeod Center, while his nine assists were the most a UNI player has ever recorded in the building.
McCloud, who already set a career high with six assists in the first half, also had a perfect shooting night, hitting 3 of 3 from the floor to finish with six points.
“(He) really had a great game tonight,” Jacobson said. “His play with the ball in his hands (was critical). He found a lot of guys. He worked in transition to find guys, he continued to do a good job off the ball screen finding guys.”
Like many of his teammates, McCloud hasn’t been satisfied with his level of aggression as of late, feeling he makes the Panthers a much stronger team when he plays in attack mode.
“It’s just me being aggressive,” he said. “Not just being aggressive to look to score, but aggressive to make plays and dish it out. And that’s what happened today. Just continuing that, and our offense will come through. That’s my role on the team is to provide for everybody and get them open looks.”