CHICAGO | Four days after its best offensive showing of the season, the Northern Iowa men's basketball team took another step back against a Loyola team that has clearly positioned itself as the lead dog in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Clayton Custer scored eight of his game-high 21 points in the final 2:29 of the first half, sparking a key Loyola run in what became a 70-47 win in Chicago Sunday afternoon.
UNI got off to a great start defensively, forcing three turnovers before the Ramblers were even able to draw iron. The defensive effort remained strong for much of the first half, as Loyola, the Valley's third-best scoring offense, needed 12:51 to reach double figures.
But as has often been the case this year, the Panthers were unable to supplement the strong defensive showing on the other end of the floor, as a 5-0 lead would be their biggest of the game.
And once the Ramblers took the lead, they never surrendered it, with Custer's late first-half splurge proving to be the difference. The junior guard scored on four of Loyola's final five first half possessions, giving the Ramblers a 26-19 halftime lead.
"We played too well defensively in the first half not to have the lead at halftime," UNI Coach Ben Jacobson said. "I thought that was the real key to the game.
"We had a good 10-12 minutes to get ahead. We just could get some points on the board. During that stretch, you've got to be able to get out ahead of them a little bit because they were going to make a run."
And Loyola did just that, making a splash play on its opening second half possession. Off a UNI turnover, Custer connected on an alley oop with Donte Ingram, who a scored all 16 of his points in a second half where Loyola shot 58 percent from the floor.
The Ramblers also got a strong showing from freshman center Cameron Krutwig, who finished with 14 points and tied Ingram with a game-high eight rebounds. Krutwig was a steadily disruptive force in the paint, repeatedly getting to the foul line, where he was a perfect 8-of-8.
Despite a stronger showing in the second half, the UNI offense was never able to muster a serious challenge.
The Rambler defense routinely cut off UNI driving lanes, forcing the Panthers to settle for contested jumpers late in the shot clock. This didn't produce strong results, as they were just 4-of-21 from deep, including 1-of-11 in the second half.
"We did not get enough touches on the block in the first half," Jacobson said. "That's not all on the players. That's a shared deal between what we came into the game looking to do offensively. And there's some execution to it.
"We were doing too much stuff where we were using the dribble, and that plays right into their hands."
Tywhon Pickford finished with 14 points, as did Klint Carlson, who scored all his points after halftime. Carlson also led UNI with seven rebounds, while Juwan McCloud added nine points, three assists and two steals.
The win, their seventh in a row, helped the Ramblers solidify their standing as the top team in the MVC, as they are now two games clear of the field at 8-2.
The picture is far less rosy for UNI, which fell to 3-7 in the Valley going into a Wednesday road tilt with Evansville.
Like his coach, Carlson felt the Panthers played well enough to build a good lead early on, and says it will be critical for the offense to take advantage of such opportunities in the near future.
"Stuff like that happens. Sometimes we're playing well defensively and we just don't hit our run," Carlson said. "We've got to be able to fight through that and still pull out a win."
Wednesday's game in Evansville tips at 7 p.m.