Key statistics: Pick one from the shooting category: 20 of 66 overall, 7 of 31 from three-point range and 3 of 4 free throws.
Northern Iowa is one of the nation’s top low-turnover teams and the Panthers committed an acceptable nine. That kept the Shockers from getting easy shots. The Panthers got one offensive rebound and probably didn’t care. They got back on defense, organized and slowed the Shockers.
UNI played great, nearly perfect at times, positional defense. All five players moved together and gave the Shockers few openings.
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How the game turned: The Shockers had it all going with a run that took them from down 15 points to tied 44-all with 11:32 to play.
They scored on four straight possessions in which they shot within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, three of those before it reached 24. They had the Panthers retreating, disorganized and tiring. UNI is too tough to fade like some other teams might, but the Shockers had a chance to gain a significant advantage.
Ten empty possessions followed, seven with the game tied.
The first, a charge by VanVleet, came after a UNI shot went out of bound, which allowed the Panthers to set their defense. Matt Bohannon waited for VanVleet in the lane, happy to leave Zach Brown open in the corner. Anton Grady had Bennett Koch pinned in the lane and Koch with three fouls. Grady missed a hook.
A bad shot by VanVleet followed. Ron Baker missed a difficult shot.
Then VanVleet charged again. Tough call, one that the Shockers protested with reason. The play goes to the need WSU felt to push the tempo, a pressure created by the Panthers. VanVleet extended his arm just enough to give the official a reason to call it.
Instead of the ball and fourth foul on Wes Washpun, the Shockers turned it over.
“We were defending really well,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “It was frustrating. We just couldn’t get one to go down.”
That drought gave UNI time to regroup. A 7-0 run that featured two baskets by Wyatt Lohaus and a three by Bohannon, over Baker, doomed the Shockers.
Records: UNI 16-11, 8-6 MVC; WSU 18-7, 12-2
Stat that might surprise you: WSU grabbed 20 offensive rebounds and scored nine second-chance points. Normally a 21-rebound margin and 19 on the offensive boards reflects a physical pounding. Northern Iowa’s defense was good enough to overcome.
Stat that shouldn’t surprise you: The Shockers shot four free throws and made three. UNI doesn’t foul. It ranks third nationally in allowing opponents to shoot free throws.
It is the 19th time this season a UNI opponent scored 10 or fewer points from the line, 10 of them in MVC games.
You are going to have to score in other ways against UNI and the Shockers did not do that. In the first meeting, WSU made 15 of 17 foul shots.
Freshman watch: Markis McDuffie scored seven points on 3-of-9 shooting. His three early in the second half started WSU’s rally and started forcing the Panthers out of their 2-3 zone defense.
At UNI, McDuffie scored 15 points and made 3 of 5 threes. It’s rare for role players to play better on the road than at home. At UNI, McDuffie made a big difference. On Saturday, he wasn’t able to duplicate that shooting.
Rotation watch: UNI’s bench won its matchups, most notably Lohaus against WSU’s Conner Frankamp.
Lohaus scored 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting and handed out four assists. Frankamp didn’t score.
Why they’re All-Americans: Baker and VanVleet got little driving to the basket, largely because the Panther devoted a man-and-a-half to them at all times and three any time they got near the lane.
Baker, after a strong start, didn’t score in the second half, missing all seven shots, five from three. He grabbed seven rebounds and handed out six assists.
VanVleet scored all eight of his points in the second half, six on three that knocked UNI out of its zone. He committed three turnovers, two during a seven-possession stretch in which the Shockers went scoreless with the game tied 44-all.
With UNI squeezing time, VanVleet tried to push the ball and get the Shockers some easy shots in the second half.
▪ The foul on WSU’s Shaq Morris, for an elbow while getting back on defense, opened up a mismatch that Panthers coach Ben Jacobson jumped on for that 10-0 run to end the first half.
Morris was off to a good start offensively and defensively. He sat the final 5:16 of the half, forcing WSU to go to Rauno Nurger and Rashard Kelly for the rest of the half. Anton Grady was already on the bench after picking up two fouls in two first-half minutes.
Jacobson sent Klint Carlson at Nurger and Kelly, playing out of position, for eight of those 10 points. He drove Nurger for a three-point play and lost him for a three. He scored over Kelly, after driving past him.
Then the Panthers went back at Nurger for a pick-and-roll basket by Bennett Koch to start the second half. Nurger started the second half because Marshall usually sits starters with two fouls after halftime because of his belief that officials are prone to calling a foul on those possessions.
The shame of that foul is that Morris had some strong defensive possessions against Koch and Washpun, walling up and avoiding fouls.
▪ Marshall was concerned before the season about the lack of a third player with the ball skills to drive from the wing.
Tekele Cotton filled that role last season. As a senior, he was experienced enough to know when to drive. He could get to the line and make plays for others. He finished last season with 98 assists, second on the team, and 45 turnovers.
Evan Wessel, McDuffie and Brown are not the penetrating threats that Cotton was. McDuffie has shown some promise, but he’s a freshman. Brown and Wessel, against a half-court defense, are mostly spot-up shooters and don’t get the defense moving with the threat of a drive or pass. Neither McDuffie nor Brown more assists than turnovers.
UNI is not the team to experiment with drives to the basket, because they will result in turnovers.
That left Baker and VanVleet as the WSU’s driving threats.
That made it easier to defend the Shockers and easier to keep them off the foul line. Brown gave WSU a good day, scoring eight points, grabbing eight rebounds and handing out two assists. Six of his seven shots were threes and UNI willingly gave up some of those.
Marshall suggested a simple off-the-dribble move to shake the Panthers out of their defensive stronghold.
“We’ve also got to shot-fake some,” he said. “We have too many shots where guys are flying at us and tipping the ball, blocking the shot. All you have to do is shot-fake, one dribble, and either go inside the arc or sidestep outside the arc.”
▪ I botched plenty of preseason predictions, as usual.
That is the UNI team I picked second in the MVC. I expected their guard to be strong and their sophomore big men to be solid enough to make it work.
It didn’t work earlier in MVC play, when UNI went 2-6. Carlson and Koch are improving and the guards are playing as expected. Now UNI has won six in a row.
“That’s a good team that’s playing well again,” Marshall said. “They’re playing like the team that played really well early in the year.”
▪ It’s been since 2013 that Shockers fans needed to hear that it’s a long season.
A day the RPI drops to No. 52 is one of those.
WSU’s damaged its NCAA at-large resume with the two recent losses. Its margin of error is almost nil. Maybe lower because of the remaining opponents.
But the bracket is a living document. Other teams slump. WSU can win. To be safe, WSU doesn’t want to lose a ninth game, or lose until the MVC Tournament final. But things can look brighter with a winning streak.
Things could also look a little better if Illinois State (100), Evansville (98) and Northern Iowa (102) can find their ways into the top 100. The Shockers could use some top-100 wins.
UNI looked lost on Jan. 23 and then won six straight. Illinois State lost three in a row and has won six of seven since.
The Shockers have problems. Teams are going to try zone defenses as long as they work, although it’s worth pointing out the Shockers rallied against UNI’s zone by making shots in the second half. Much of its 10-possession drought came against a man defense.
WSU’s struggles against zones by Illinois State and UNI are probably more a case of struggling against good defensive teams than solely the zone defense.
It’s a long season.
Jacobson will tell you that.
“Our guys know we’ve got a good team,” he said. “We had a two-week stretch where we didn’t play that well. It’s part of the season. The guys stayed with it. Now we’ve got our confidence back.”
▪ The Shockers, again did a good job on Washpun. He scored eight points on 12 shots in 25 minutes.
But his three-point play for a 54-47 lead closed the door.
“Wes did not play good for … six, seven minutes,” Jacobson said. “That three-point play he got, late, after not playing well… was a huge play.”
In two games against WSU, he is 8 of 25 from the field. If you are going to beat the Panthers, you start with controlling Washpun and that is something WSU can grab if the teams meet again.
▪ ESPN’s obsession with “Green room guys” is silly.
There is no reason to think Baker will be one of the 20 or so players invited to ESPN’s NBA Draft green room. It won’t be a surprise if Baker is drafted. It won’t be a surprise if he plays in the NBA. From my conversations with NBA scouts, he does not appear to be a strong candidate to go in the first round.
At some point, ESPN announcers (Mark Adams in this case) insistence on flagging him as a “Green room guy” becomes unfair to Baker. He’s had a great college career and will get his chance to prove he can make it in the NBA. He doesn’t need to be judged a disappointment if he’s not a “Green room guy.”
Next up: vs. New Mexico State, 7 p.m. Monday (Cox 22)
The Aggies are No. 126 in the RPI and bring a nine-game win streak to Koch Arena. On Saturday, they won 69-55 at Chicago State. They are a good defensive team, albeit against a weak schedule. Opponents are shooting 39.4 percent against New Mexico State, 35.1 from three.