CEDAR FALLS -- While hopes for a conference title remain strong with Northern Iowa players and coaches, Thursday's Missouri Valley Conference opener showed just how much work the Panthers have to do.
UNI scored just three points in the first 8:51 and suffered critical defensive breakdowns in the second half in a 56-53 upset loss to short-handed Southern Illinois.
Both offenses were MIA early, and following a scoreless 6:07 stretch, SIU clung to a 6-3 lead with 11:09 to play in the first half.
"It took us a long time to really get anything going on offense and unfortunately that just kind of set the mood for the entire night," UNI Coach Ben Jacobson said. "I didn't think we had enough bounce in our step, enough of an edge to us, considering we're at home to open the conference season and we've got another big crowd. When those two things are missing, this can happen to you. And it did tonight."
Despite the offensive struggles, the Panthers were able to grab a 25-22 halftime lead, and advantage they extended to 35-30 on an Austin Phyfe layup with 15:31 to play.
But behind the outside shooting of Marcus Bartley, the Salukis, found just enough rhythm to pull the come-from-behind upset.
Declared doubtful with a back injury going in, Bartley, who was cleared after a chiropractic appointment pregame. And despite being visibly hobbled, he went on a personal 9-0 run following the Phyfe basket, giving the Salukis a lead they never again surrendered.
Jacobson was particularly disappointed with the defensive effort on Bartley's last two baskets, 3-point shots that came on back-to-back possessions, thanks largely to blown assignments.
"That shouldn't happen," he said. "As much as we struggled offensively, even if we take those two plays away, it's at least a tie game with two minutes left, instead of being behind a possession or two. We still had our chances defensively. Our attention to detail wasn't good enough."
That wasn't the case for SIU, which shut down Bennett Koch inside. Kavion Pippen, who led all scorers with 14, also spearheaded a sound defensive effort that allowed the Salukis to hold Koch to just five points on 2-of-8 shooting.
Also reliable for a memorable quote, SIU Coach Barry Hinson unsurprisingly had a colorful way to explain Pippen's success.
"Kavion has a really big butt," Hinson said. "He's got girth and it's hard to move him around."