CEDAR FALLS – Ben Jacobson sat down at the table in the media room and attempted to clip a tiny black microphone to his dark navy and silver diagonally striped tie. It’s a process he’s done countless times. Still, for some reason Wednesday night, the simple transformed into the nearly impossible.
After about 15 seconds of fiddling, the Northern Iowa video coordinator helped the head coach out, attaching it for him. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they didn’t have that type of help on the court against Indiana State.
The Panthers dribbled balls off their feet, collided into one another, missed free throws, clanked open looks and passed up easy open looks. Like the postgame, the norm in the contest against the Sycamores became the unusual in a 65-61 Missouri Valley Conference loss.
“Everybody had opportunities to make shots,” Northern Iowa guard Anthony James said. “We missed open shots, shots that we make nine of out 10 times; laypus, free throws. That’s just on offense.”
The list of issues could total more than the points the Panthers put up against the Sycamores. Northern Iowa entered the game leading the MVC in free throw percentage and ranked 23rd in the nation. Wednesday it shot 60 percent. In addition to scoring seven points less than what it averages, UNI turned the ball over 15 times, three more than usual.
The offense never clicked. During one possession Marc Sonnen couldn’t catch a pass, bobbled it toward the baseline and heaved a shot while falling out of bounds. In another, Chip Rank was surprised to receive a pass, which led to another near turnover and a forced 3-point attempt. In one final snap shot of the sloppiness, Jake Koch caught a pass on the block, with no one around him. Instead of turning and going up immediately, he upfaked, allowing two defenders to collapse and the senior missed a short range hook.
When the shots did fall, the Panthers converted at a 42.6 percent clip, right about on target for the season, but only thanks to Seth Tuttle, who shot 9 of 14 from the field. The rest of the team shot 14 of 40 or 35 percent.
“Tuttle, I told him after the game, I’m not looking forward to having to prepare for him,” said Indiana State head coach Greg Lansing, who improved to 4-1 against UNI. “He’s really good. He’s played awfully tough against us. He’s one of the best bigs in the league.”
Tuttle finished with a double-double scoring a game-high 24 points and hauling in 10 boards. The sophomore power forward single handily kept the Panthers within striking distance in the second half. In a 5:19 stretch toward the end of the second he reeled off 10 straight. But without any help, the one-man run only cut the deficit from four to three.
But even Tuttle’s game displayed flaws that usually aren’t there. The sophomore fouled out contesting a Jake Odum jumper with 1:32 left in the game with this team down three.
“I thought he was going to pull it. So I tried to jump to contest it. He didn’t shoot it, came back up into me and I got the foul called,” Tuttle said. “It was a great move. And I didn’t follow our kind of defense. I left my feet.”
Still, even then the Panthers had a chance. Rank hit a 3, with 36.3 left – the first player not named Tuttle to score in 9:29. The long range jumper sliced the lead to four. The Sycamores aided the comeback, when four trips to the free throw line in the final 35 seconds and resulted in just four points.
The shaky shooting set the Panthers up with 6.5 left. UNI inbounded the ball from mid-court, but again the easy became complex. The Sycamore covered Deon Mitchell’s first option, Rank, and his second option, Marc Sonnen, caught the ball and pivoted out of bounds.
“In that situation, that’s on me as opposed to the guys,” Jacobson said. “We’ve got to make sure that we get our first option on the entry, we have to make sure we get him open. We didn’t help Chip enough to get him open… I made the mistake of not making sure that Chip was going to be open.”
The Sycamores gave the 4,035 in attendance at the McCleod Center a window of hope when Khristian Smith missed the front end of the double bonus. He made the second, sealing the Sycamores’ victory. James heaved a long 3-pionter as time expired. To the scoreboard it meant nothing. It if had gone in, it would have been the senior’s 1,000th career point.
With back-to back losses to start conference play, it’s a milestone that he wants to take a backseat.
“We didn’t want to start 0-2 in conference,” James said. “But I mean there’s not much we can do but try to improve on the things we need to.”