EVANSVILLE, Ind | A bad case of deja vu once again reared its ugly head for the Northern Iowa men's basketball team, which suffered arguably the worst loss of an already exasperating conference season.
After enduring a 10:39 stretch without a field goal, the Evansville offense turned a complete 180, hitting 13 of its final 16 shots, while holding the Panthers to 31 percent from the floor in a 57-49 win Wednesday.
UNI, which has gone nearly a calendar year without winning a true road game, looked to be in prime position to finally see that streak end.
Despite an 8:06 scoreless stretch of their own, in which they fell into an 11-point hole, the Panthers were still able to rally back to tie the game at the half. Hunter Rhodes, who hadn't scored since Dec. 28, completed a 12-1 run with a contested 3 in the final minute of the half, evening the score at 21.
The Panther run carried over into the second half, as Rhodes game his team its first lead with a jumper on the opening possession. Bennett Koch, who had a team-high 19 points, then converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to give UNI a 28-22 lead 3:38 into the half.
But from there, a Purple Aces offense that previously couldn't get anything to fall, was seemingly incapable of missing, as their next seven shots found the bottom of the net.
Ryan Taylor, the leading scorer in the Missouri Valley Conference, did much of the damage, finishing with 25 points, while uncontested looks far to often for Ben Jacobson's liking.
"He doesn't need any daylight, and we gave it to him," the UNI Coach said of Taylor. "We ran into too many screens, allowed him to get open."
The Aces, who also got a 15-point, 15-rebound double-double from Blake Simmons, went on their late run despite the absence of point guard Dru Smith, who is out 2-4 weeks with a foot injury. A 13.5 point scorer, Smith leads the Valley with 4.8 assists per game.
While second half defensive struggles have been a persistent problem for UNI in its 3-8 start to Valley play, they've been supplemented by an even more troubling lack of offense, particularly on the road.
In their last three games away from the McLeod Center, the Panthers are averaging just 49.6 points per game, while shooting 34 percent from the field. This has been a far cry from UNI's recent home output, where it is averaging 77.3 points and shooting nearly 50 percent in its last three games, all wins.
"To have another night where we struggled offensively (is frustrating) because we played so well at home in between these," Jacobson said. "There were enough possessions in the first half where we either executed well enough or we were able to get an open shot. And those weren't going in for us again.
"We just haven't been able to get enough going offensively to give us a lift."
So how will the Panthers fix these struggles? Some players hope returning home for three of the next four games will provide some type of boost going forward.
"We just want to compete at a high level," said Rhodes, who scored seven points in a season-high 30 minutes. "We've just got to do things differently. Give a ton of effort and be the team with the most energy."
Others admit they aren't exactly sure how to get this once-promising season back on track.
"I don't know what to do, I guess," Koch said. "Nobody likes losing. We've just got to shrug it off and move to the next game. We've got to keep working."
UNI returns home Saturday for a 3 p.m. tipoff with Indiana State.