CEDAR FALLS – During the pregame shoot around, Northern Iowa filled the basket with balls – literally. Chip Rank poured in a 3 from the wing at the same time two other shots fell, which clogged the net.
Marc Sonnen sunk another from the same spot as the log jam continued.
The issue didn’t’ extend into the game -- at least not at first.
Northern Iowa shot 37 percent on the night, which included air balls and layups blocked by the rim. The Panthers overcame the poor shooting night as Illinois Chicago (18-16) struggled with the smaller points of basketball, including dribbling, passing and sometimes even walking.
With the aid of 21 UIC turnovers UNI (20-14) pulled out a 63-51 win in the second round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament on Saturday in front of 3,025 in the McLeod Center.
“Both teams were playing hard, I don’t fault either team for not playing hard but neither team was playing that good on offense,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “So it was a hard game to watch for a long time.”
The win places UNI in the third round of the CIT where it will host Bradley on Tuesday. The Panthers swept the Braves during the regular season.
The offensive ineptitude highlighted the struggles of the Northern Iowa bench. Against North Dakota in the opening round of the CIT, the Panther reserves scored five points on 1 of 8 shooting. Through the first half of Saturday’s game, the bench contributed two points on 1 of 5 attempts.
It continued a trend of 26 points in the last five games.
One of those struggling included Rank, who lit it up during pregame.
“Chip’s been struggling a little bit lately,” UNI sophomore Seth Tuttle said. “We all tell him let it go. He’ll sit in the gym and he’ll just make shot after shot after shot and then come game time he hadn’t been able to hit a couple here lately.”
With the game on the line, the ball found Rank. Deon Mitchell drove toward the basket. As the defense collapsed on Mitchell, he dished the ball to Rank in the right corner.
“I didn’t think he was going to shoot it,” UNI senior Jake Koch said. “But as soon as he started I thought it was going in.”
Rank buried the 3-pointer with 1:23 remaining, increasing the Panther lead to eight.
Since Jan. 21 Rank was 6 of his last 40 from beyond the arc. Rank also had a dunk to finish with five points, which are the most since Feb. 13 vs. Creighton where he scored 11 and sank three of those six deep balls.
“He’s a great shooter. It may not have been his best year shooting, but we all still have confidence in him,” Koch said. “That shot at the end was huge.”
Anthony James led the Panthers in scoring for the second straight game, this time with 17. Tuttle finished with 15, including the first eight points of the second half.
The Panthers disrupted the Flames’ shooting habits as well. UIC’s leading scorer Gary Talton began the game 0 for 8 and finished with six points on 2 of 12 shooting. He also committed six turnovers – one shy of a season-high.
“We go as he goes,” UIC head coach Howard Moore said. “So if he’s turning the ball over quite a bit then other guys do the same.”
The Panthers helped themselves with 22 points off turnovers. They also emerged from the sloppy play with its 20th win, marking the fifth straight season. Like the CIT, it might not turn many heads, including its current players.
“We got 20 wins tonight?” Koch said. “That’s pretty awesome.”
And the streak, like the CIT, isn’t how the Panthers wanted to end the season, but it’s the only option they have.
“It may not be the tournament that we really wanted, with the NCAA Tournament,” Koch said. “But we’re in a tournament. We have the opportunity to play so we’re going to keep busting our butts.”
NORTHERN IOWA 63, ILLINOIS-CHICAGO 51
Game Ball: Jake Koch - The senior ignited a 12-0 run midway through the second with two assists and took a charge late that led to a Flames technical. Koch finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Lame Ball: Gary Talton - Illinois-Chicago's leading scorer started the game 0 for 8 and finished with just six points.
Light the Victory Cigar: 1:23 second half - Chip Rank hits a 3-pointer from the right corner to put UNI up eight. Rank was 6 for his last 40 from 3 before making that shot.
Watercooler stat: Northern Iowa had runs of 8-0, 8-3, and 12-0, during them the Panthers shot 11 of 14. Each run lasted less than 2:35. The rest of the game UNI shot 9 of 40.Big Number: 4 - The number of points the UNI bench had before Rank's 3-pointer.