Northern Iowa is racking up wins, but it hasn’t been easy lately. Another tough game could be in store Wednesday night with a visit to its in-state conference rival.
The 19th-ranked Panthers look to move closer to winning their second straight Missouri Valley Conference title when they visit Drake, which has been difficult to beat at home lately.
Northern Iowa (21-2, 12-1) has a three-game lead over second-place Wichita State in the Valley with five conference games to play. The Panthers won their first regular-season league title since 1969 with a 14-4 conference record last season, spurred by what was a school-record 11-1 start in the MVC.
Northern Iowa surpassed that mark with a 55-52 win over Southern Illinois on Saturday, but that outcome was in doubt until the very end.
The Panthers trailed 47-42 with 3:10 remaining until Adam Koch scored 11 consecutive points to help them rally. The 6-foot-8 senior had 16 of his 21 points in the second half.
That comeback win came after UNI rallied from eight down to beat Wichita State 59-56 last Wednesday and scored the game’s final five points to beat Missouri State 55-54 on Jan. 30.
“I think we do a good job of staying levelheaded and not getting too upset or too high,” said Koch, who averages a team-best 13.0 points. “(Saturday) we just hunkered down and executed when we needed to.”
The last time the Panthers had an easy victory was a 67-51 win over Drake on Jan. 27, but it could be a tighter game in Des Moines.
The Bulldogs (11-14, 6-7) have been tough to slow down at the Knapp Center, averaging 78.5 points on 52.4 percent shooting in winning their last four there. Drake’s offense was nowhere near as effective at Northern Iowa two weeks ago, shooting 38.0 percent while being held 17 points below its scoring average.
The Bulldogs, who haven’t been swept in a season series with the Panthers since 2005-06, aren’t the only ones who have had trouble scoring on UNI.
The Panthers are second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 55.0 points, and have held each of their last 10 opponents to 60 or fewer. Drake, meanwhile, has lost all seven games when scoring fewer than 60.
The Bulldogs return to Drake after back-to-back, heartbreaking road losses.
After losing at Bradley 67-65 last Tuesday on a basket with 1.8 seconds remaining, the Bulldogs lost to Illinois State 71-68 on Saturday. After giving up the go-ahead 3-pointer with 23 seconds left, Drake had a chance to tie the game at 69, but Josh Young missed the back end of a one-and-one with 1.1 seconds remaining.
Young finished with a season-best 22 points and became Drake’s all-time leading scorer with 1,665 points - eight more than Red Murrell, who played from 1955-58.
Young is averaging 18.4 points on 52.1 percent shooting in his last seven games, but the only time he was held under 18 in that span came when he scored 12 against the Panthers.