CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP)—For Matt Schneiderman and David Gruber, it was just perfect.
The two Northern Iowa seniors had big nights in their final regular-season game at home and helped deny Southern Illinois a perfect season in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Schneiderman and Gruber scored 16 points each and dominated on the boards to lead Northern Iowa past the 15th-ranked Salukis 68-52 on Monday night.
Northern Iowa beat a top-25 opponent for the third time this season and kept Southern Illinois (24-3, 17-1) from becoming the first team to finish unbeaten in the league since Bradley in 1985-86.
“We’re pretty proud we prevented them from going 18-0 in league play,” Schneiderman said. “I think the rest of the Valley appreciates that, too.”
Northern Iowa (18-9, 12-6) was the sharper team from the start and never trailed. The Panthers took a 12-point halftime lead, held off Southern Illinois’ only run of the second half and led by as many as 21 points.
The Salukis shot 34 percent, were outrebounded 42-37 and generally outhustled in losing for the first time since Jan. 2, when they were beaten by Charlotte 64-59.
“I felt all season we played harder than every opponent and did the little things better,” Southern Illinois coach Matt Painter said. “But tonight from the tip we got outhustled and outplayed.”
Northern Iowa, which beat Iowa and Creighton when they were ranked, pulled its latest upset without guard Chris Foster, who tore a ligament in his right knee on Sunday. But the combination of Schneiderman and Gruber more than made up for his absence.
Schneiderman made four 3-pointers and grabbed eight rebounds. The right-handed Gruber, playing with a cast on his broken left hand, scored in close and had nine rebounds.
“For Gruber to get 16 points and nine rebounds with a broken hand in a cast is unbelievable,” Northern Iowa coach Greg McDermott said. “He’s a warrior.”
Darren Brooks, Jamaal Tatum and LaMar Owen led Southern Illinois with 10 points each. The Salukis already had clinched the Valley’s regular-season championship and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, which starts Friday in St. Louis. Northern Iowa will be the No. 2 seed.
“Tonight was not an upset,” Painter said. “UNI is a good basketball team, deserving of the win.”
Southern Illinois threatened only once, drawing to 41-36 on Tony Young’s driving shot with 11:59 left. But Northern Iowa quickly regained the momentum, outscoring the Salukis 17-4 to go up by 18.
Two offensive rebounds in one possession were critical in that spurt. Schneiderman rebounded Brooks McKowen’s miss of a long 3 and that led to a free throw by Ben Jacobson, who scored 13 points.
Northern Iowa’s Grant Stout got the rebound after Jacobson missed his second shot and Jacobson nailed a 3 from the deep left corner to make it 53-38 with 7:34 to play. A 3 by Schneiderman and Gruber’s layup took the lead to 58-40 and finished off the Salukis.
Northern Iowa got the early lead with sound, fundamental play.
McKowen made sharp entry passes to Gruber and Schneiderman when they posted up, hit a long 3-pointer and made five free throws. Schneiderman hit two 3s, and he and Gruber scored off offensive rebounds.
Southern Illinois, meanwhile, struggled to find any rhythm. The Salukis shot quickly and misfired on everything from 3-point attempts to short jump hooks. They also missed seven of their first eight free throws.
“We just attacked and defensively, we forced them into perimeter shots,” McDermott said. “Tonight was our night. We played well in all phases of the game.”
McKowen fed Gruber for two layups to start the game and Northern Iowa led the rest of the way. Gruber dropped in a short hook on a pass from McKowen to give the Panthers a 21-11 lead, and when Schneiderman’s defender fell down on the perimeter, he hit a 3 to make it 26-15.
The Panthers led 33-21 at halftime, the fewest points in a half by Southern Illinois this season.
“When I made a couple early that was really good for my confidence,” Gruber said. “I was fortunate to get the team going a little bit. Then the other guys hit some shots and we were off and running.”