NORMAL — As much as Northern Iowa’s defense, the pressure of winning their first Missouri Valley Conference game seemed to weigh heavily on Illinois State’s basketball players Wednesday night.
UNI outscored the Redbirds 9-2 in the final six minutes. ISU’s Anthony Cousin was long on a 23-foot 3-point attempt with two seconds left as the Panthers slipped out of Redbird Arena with an ugly 46-44 victory before a crowd of 4,021.
ISU coach Tim Jankovich was asked whether his team got tight after taking a 42-37 lead with 6:05 left. The Redbirds (8-9) went 1 of 6 from the field down the stretch in falling to 0-6 in the Valley for the first time in eight years.
“This is a team that has not had a lot of good things happen for it or has confidence running through their veins right now,” said Jankovich. “It’s hard to say exactly, but it appeared that way. We had several different chances, but it didn’t go our way.”
UNI (12-6, 3-3) has made a habit of winning grind-it-out games like this the past couple years. Anthony James drove the baseline for a layup with 2:28 left to break a 44-all tie and provided the winning points.
The Panthers were as offensively challenged as ISU on this night. UNI shot 36.5 percent from the field, while ISU made 37.5 percent. But the Panthers didn’t come unglued and hung on for their sixth straight win over the Redbirds.
“We have that experience, which is very helpful,” said UNI’s Jake Koch, who scored a game-high 13 points. “You look around at those timeouts late in the game, and no one was panicking or freaking out. We know we’re going to put ourselves in a position to win.”
ISU used a 15-5 run early in the second half, led by John Wilkins’ eight points, to overcome a 23-21 halftime deficit and take a 36-30 lead.
Austin Hill sank a 15-foot jumper with 6:05 left to give the Redbirds a five-point cushion. But Koch’s 3-pointer forged a 42-all tie, and UNI’s defense bottled up the Redbirds the rest of the way.
“Maybe we got a little tired or something,” said ISU redshirt freshman Jon Ekey, who was 3-of-3 on 3-pointers for nine points. “We might be forcing it too much and needed to get an extra pass here or there. I thought we were taking good shots; it just wasn’t falling for us.”
ISU’s Blake Mishler came off the bench and scored eight of his team-high 10 points in the first half to keep it close. The Redbirds also grabbed a 38-31 rebounding advantage, but UNI’s 22-12 advantage in points scored in the paint proved to be the difference.
“I feel badly for our group through this period — which literally none of us has been through before — and their ability to prepare, stay together, stay focused and stay determined have been great,” said Jankovich. “You don’t hold a team to 36 percent (shooting) and not be ready to play.”
ISU, which has lost its last two games by a combined six points, tries to break its Valley drought at 6:05 p.m. Saturday against Evansville (8-8, 2-4) at Redbird Arena.
“The only way we can react to these hard times we’re having is by working hard every day and not really let it get to us and work tomorrow just as hard as we did before this game, and hopefully good things will come to us,” said Mishler.
REDBIRD REPORT CARD
FRONT COURT – C+: John Wilkins and Jon Ekey led second-half charge. UNI’s 22-10 advantage in the paint was the difference.
BACKCOURT – C: ISU did good job defensively on Kwadzo Ahelegbe, but were stifled on the offensive end.
BENCH – B—: Blake Mishler kept ISU in the game with 10 points and five boards. Tony Lewis grabbed six rebounds.
OVERALL – C: UNI’s experience was evident in last six minutes. ISU is in must-win mode on Saturday against Evansville.