Evansville-N. Iowa Preview
Before Northern Iowa can focus on the highly anticipated regular-season finale with its Missouri Valley Conference co-leader, there’s a chance to make program history for the second time in three days.
The No. 10 Panthers can avenge their most recent defeat with a school-record 16th consecutive victory Wednesday night against visiting Evansville.
Riding the fourth-longest winning streak in the country, Northern Iowa (26-2, 15-1) cracked the top 10 of the AP Poll for the first time Monday and will try for another milestone in its final regular-season home contest.
"It’s a good one coming on Wednesday," said coach Ben Jacobson, who won’t underestimate the national recognition his team has received.
"It’s another line in the sand," he said. "It’s the Top 25. If you go from 26 to 25, it’s one spot but that’s a big deal. When you go from 11 to 10, it’s one spot but that’s a big deal. I’m very proud of the guys."
Jacobson continues to keep the Panthers focused, especially during a week that concludes with a visit to No. 11 Wichita State on Saturday. UNI handed the Shockers, who visit Indiana State on Wednesday, their only Valley defeat Jan. 31.
But after blowing a 16-point lead en route to a 52-49 loss at Evansville (19-9, 9-7) on Jan. 1, UNI has more than enough incentive not to look ahead in a quest for its first league title since 2009-10.
"Wednesday we’ll see always one of the hardest teams to play, one of the hardest teams to prepare for," said Jacobson, whose group has won 17 straight at home. "They play as hard as anybody in the country, regardless of the circumstance."
The Panthers went 13 of 24 from the floor in the first half at Evansville, but shot 6 of 19 – 1 of 8 from 3-point range – in the second. They also were outrebounded 14-3 on the offensive glass and yielded 18 points on 12 turnovers.
"(Northern Iowa is) a great team, but our guys were gritty," Evansville coach Marty Simmons said after that contest.
The Aces, who are looking for their first true road win over a Top 25 team, shot 32.7 percent in the first meeting but got to the line 25 times while UNI attempted only seven free throws. Panthers star Seth Tuttle had 18 points but fouled out in the final minute.
Allowing the fourth-fewest points per game (53.8) in the nation, UNI has surrendered an average of 50.6 points and 37.3 percent shooting in league play and held its last two opponents to 39 points each.
"We’re helping each other," Tuttle said after Saturday’s 17-point home win over Bradley. "We’re covering up for each other. Basically, our defense right now is playing like one unit. Everyone is just flying all over the place."
The Panthers will try to contain Valley scoring leader D.J. Balentine (19.0 ppg), who had 17 points in the first meeting and a career-high 43 while going 10 of 19 from the floor and 19 of 21 from the free-throw line in a 95-81 loss at Northern Iowa last season.
Balentine was held to eight points on 2-of-10 shooting in Sunday’s 62-43 road loss to the Shockers.
Tuttle, the league’s third-leading scorer at 15.8 points per game and top shooter at 63.3 percent, had 20 in last season’s home win over the Aces.