CEDAR FALLS – Each senior walked off the court to a standing ovation before the final buzzer sounded. Marc Sonnen fouled out with 4:57 remaining. With 2.9 left, Anthony James and Jake Koch followed with substitutions taking their spot. With 0.2 remaining Austin Pehl received his ovation from the 6,621 in attendance at the McLeod Center.
It’s a senior day tradition, but the thunderous cheers mixed with applause came equally due to their play on the court Saturday in an 80-72 win over Illinois State, as much as it was for their four years of service.
“I think this was the greatest senior night I’ve ha–,” Sonnen said interrupting himself on the word had. “Obviously it was the only one I had, it’s the best one I’ve had (here).”
The seniors will move onto something they’re a little more experienced in – postseason play. As the three seed, the Panther (18-13, 11-7) face the sixth seeded Redbirds(17-14, 8-10) again next week in the opening round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on Friday in St. Louis.
In the rematch, UNI will need a more balanced attack. The senior quartet scored 57 of the Panthers’ 80 points. Replace sophomore Seth Tuttle with Pehl, and that foursome scored 70 of the 80 points.
The trio of Sonnen, James and Koch stood even taller in the second half with 28 points. More than the quantity of points, it was the timing of them.
“They’ve carried us for six weeks now,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “But the way they’ve played the last six weeks, they’ve really carried us.”
No one hoisted the team higher than Sonnen. He opened the second half by burying five 3s on seven attempts. His onslaught of deep balls carried the Panthers during the first 15 minutes of the second half. A UNI player not named Sonnen didn’t make a field goal until 4:31 left in the game.
“He had it going again and he’s done that more than a handful of times this year, he’s really gotten it going,” Jacobson said.
Sonnen finished with six 3s, giving him 82 for the season, a new UNI single-season record. The long range specialist could only bear the load for so long. With just under five minutes left, Sonnen picked up his fifth foul.
“I felt like, in a way, I let my team down. The extra fouls that I maybe could have not done,” Sonnen said. “I always have confidence in my team. I knew what they were going to be able to do, and get it done.”
That’s when Koch and James took over. The next four field goals involved the duo. Koch got the offense rolling with Sonnen sidelined with an assist and a fadaway jumper.
James put the game away with a 3-pointer and then an and-1 conversion to put the Panthers up nine with less than 30 seconds remaining.
The long-range assault curbed a recent Panther trend. In its previous three games, and the Panthers made 22 of its last 88 3-balls, including 0 for 8 to begin Saturday night.
James abruptly put a stop to that trend banging home back-to-back 3s late in the first half. The six-point swing converted a one point deficit into a five-point UNI lead.
“That’s the thing, we don’t really pay attention to stats during the game,” James said. “I didn’t know we were 0 and 8. Guys’ open, we just shoot the shots. Every time we shoot we think it’s going to go in.”
In all, James finished with 19 while Sonnen and Koch chipped in 18 apiece. The senior guards took care of business from deep, while Koch did his damage from close range. Koch joined Tuttle as both big men recorded a double-double. The elder hauled in 11 boards, the sophomore finished with 15 and 11.
“We got to a lot of rebounds. Some of it was really good effort by our guys.” Jacobson said regarding his team’s 42-26 advantage on the glass. “I thought our guys put in a really good effort on the boards.”
The effort could also been seen in the air under Koch’s feet.
Four of the forward’s points came via the Jake-Koch-Dunk, a part of his game that fans see about as often as Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster.
“I had seen it before,” Jacobson said. “I don’t see it very often.”
Northern Iowa 80, Illinois State 72
The “Double Bonus:” Gazette reporter Michael Bonner’s quick reaction to UNI’s win over Illinois State on senior night at the McLeod Center Saturday.
Game Ball: Marc Sonnen — Despite fouling out late in the second half, the senior drained five 3s in the second half, the only field goals in the final 20 minutes until less than five minutes remained.
Lame Ball: Jackie Carmichael — The Redbirds’ leading scorer didn’t score until 30 seconds left in the first half, he finished with five points and four fouls.
Light the victory cigar: 32.7 2nd — Anthony James gets a steal, a bucket and a foul to put UNI up 76-67.
Water cooler stat: Four players — Marc Sonnen, Jake Koch, Seth Tuttle and Anthony James — combined for 70 of UNI’s 80 points.
Big Number: 18 — Number of offensive rebounds for UNI leading to a 18-4 advantage in second chance points.