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As defense steps back, ISU's Kent steps up

Jan. 9—Northern Iowa's defenders essentially dared Jayson Kent to shoot a 3-pointer with 3,891 mostly UNI fans watching.

The Panthers used the same tactic, even when Kent was simply near the arc in 2-point range.

So Kent shot, again and again.

He sank 3 of 7 3-pointers and 5 of 6 2-point shots, as well as 5 of 7 free throws to finish Sunday's Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball game with a career-best 24 points. Kent and the Sycamores won 77-66, trailing only in the game's early minutes.

Kent also grabbed 13 rebounds, playing 39 of the game's 40 minutes. The 6-foot-8, 205-pound junior provided a steadying presence Sunday, while fellow Sycamore regulars Robbie Avila and Xavier Bledson sat out much of the second half with four fouls each. In absence of the 6-10 Avila and 6-6 Bledson, ISU coach Josh Schertz used rare combinations of players, and received strong contributions from reserves Masen Miller, Aaron Gray and Jake Wolfe.

At one point, the Sycamores aligned with the 6-7 Gray at center.

ISU's usual pace turned more halting and Northern Iowa sensed it could capitalize by forcing Kent to shoot deep.

"I wasn't expecting them to back off so far," Kent said outside the visitors' locker room in UNI's McLeod Center. "It kind of messed me up a little bit. But they had to do what they had to do to win. My team told me, 'If they're going to do that, just shoot it; you've been in the gym too much.' And they told me to trust my work."

Kent is now 10 for 31 in 3-point shooting this season, a success rate of 32.3%. Overall, he's hitting 63% of his field-goal attempts.

Avila — who was limited to 28 minutes but still finished with eight points, eight rebounds and eight assists — was impressed by Kent's performance.

"He did what we needed," Avila said, "and he got us the win."

Indeed, the Sycamores climbed to records of 13-2 overall and 4-0 in the conference, pulling ahead of a cluster of second-place teams at 3-1 — Drake, Southern Illinois, Belmont and Murray State. ISU continues its Iowa road trip with a 8 p.m. EST game Wednesday at Drake (12-3, 3-1).

Kent knows Drake's strengths, having played through last season when ISU and the Bulldogs split their MVC series. Drake is led by a foursome of double-figure scorers — Tucker DeVries at 18.8 points per game, followed by Atin Wright at 15.1 ppg, Kevin Overton 12.6 and Darnell Brodie 10.9. The 6-7 DeVries was the MVC Player of the Year last season.

"DeVries is probably one of the best players in the league," Kent said. "If we can just key in on him and key in on some of their other guys, and slow them down as much as we can and make them play their worst game, that's what we have to do."

The Sycamores managed to stop Northern Iowa from catching up, despite the odd player combinations Sunday. That success didn't surprise Kent.

"We've worked on different situations," Kent said. "We trust guys no matter whether they're starting or coming off the bench. We all believe in each other and their abilities. And no matter what, we're going to find out together and we're going to pull it out together."

And Kent's success after being thrust into an occasional deep shooting role by UNI's strategy didn't surprise Schertz.

"I thought he was really good," Schertz said. "And that's tough — we call it 'dorking' somebody when you just don't guard them. [Northern Iowa] put [its big man Jacob] Hutson on [Kent] and they put [Hutson] in the paint."

UNI tried "to throw us off rhythm," Schertz added.

Standing wide open, with the assigned defender standing near basket can be daunting.

"Those shots are hard to make when nobody's guarding you," Schertz said. "They're harder than people think. In some ways, it's harder to make that shot because it's almost like a free throw on a technical when nobody's around you. You're not in rhythm in that scenario and he made some really good shots."

That wasn't all Kent did.

"He did an unbelievable job on the glass, [with] 13 rebounds, and his cutting [to the basket], his transition [between defense and offense], just the whole package," Schertz said.