Northern Iowa suffered a big letdown against a team it had dominated in recent years in its last game. The Panthers easily defeated Illinois State last month, but they won’t be taking the Redbirds lightly Saturday.
In their regular-season finale, the No. 25 Panthers look to win their sixth straight at home over the Redbirds.
Northern Iowa (24-4, 14-3 Missouri Valley) clinched its first outright regular-season conference title before back-to-back losses dropped it out of the AP poll last week. After moving back in Monday following consecutive wins, the Panthers appear headed for another exit when the new rankings come out following a stunning 55-54 loss at Evansville on Tuesday.
Northern Iowa shot 33.3 percent against a team it had beaten 10 straight times. It rallied from eight down in the second half to pull within a point with 2 seconds remaining but was unable to get another shot off.
“We probably could have been more focused, yeah,” said Jake Koch, who scored 22 points. “We should have been more focused.”
After two straight wins, Northern Iowa suffered its first loss without 7-foot center Jordan Eglseder, who served the final game of a three-game suspension after being arrested and charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Eglseder, averaging 12.2 points and 7.6 rebounds, will be back Saturday.
The Panthers will try to bounce back against Illinois State (21-8, 11-6), which has won six in a row. The two were the top teams in the conference when they met Jan. 9, and Northern Iowa won 59-44 for its fourth straight victory in the series. Eglseder had 16 points and eight rebounds.
“We’ve won a lot of basketball games this year,” coach Ben Jacobson said. “Regardless of a big win or a tough loss, they’ve been able to really get ready for the next game. We’ve got an experienced team, and they really take pride in being prepared.”
While Northern Iowa easily defeated Illinois State last month, the Redbirds are unlikely to be overlooked given how well they’ve played during their winning streak. They defeated Indiana State 75-58 on Wednesday behind 21 points from Dinma Odiakosa, who scored in double figures for the 11th consecutive game.
Osiris Eldridge, who leads the Redbirds with 15.9 points per game, finished with 14. He was held to 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting against Northern Iowa.
While Illinois State has improved on offense since last meeting Northern Iowa, it will be looking for a better defensive effort after forcing only 10 turnovers and allowing the Panthers to shoot 50.0 percent in the first half en route to a 12-point lead.
The Redbirds can clinch the second seed in the MVC tournament with a victory.