CEDAR FALLS – Two games into the season, the University of Northern Iowa men's basketball team has seemingly found a way to fix the scoring woes that plagued the Panthers' throughout the 2016-17 season.
Make a lot of 3s.
UNI continued its hot streak from behind the 3-point line, connecting on 15 of 27 shots and pulling away for a 73-45 win over Alcorn State at the McLeod Center Monday.
After averaging just 7.6 makes and a 32.6 percentage from 3 last season, the Panthers have averaged 14 in their first two games while making nearly 51 percent of their 3-point tries.
On Monday, it was Juwan McCloud who had the hottest hand, hitting 6 of 8 3-point attempts to finish with a game-high 18 points. The scoring output was a career-high for McCloud, who doubled his previous career-best number for 3s in a game.
Facing more serious backcourt competition than he did a season ago, the sophomore guard spent the offseason improving his shot and says he's seen a considerable rise in his confidence.
"(I'm) just believing in myself and preparing myself for each game, knowing what I have to do to get myself prepared and be mentally ready is definitely a different thing I did this year," McCloud said. "Just being more confident in myself."
Isaiah Brown made three 3-pointers for the second-straight game, while Tywhon Pickford, Klint Carlson and Spencer Haldeman all hit two, providing the solid scoring balance Coach Ben Jacobson was hoping to see entering the year.
"We've got a highly skilled team," Jacobson said. "We've felt like that part of our game was going to be good for us this year. You combine some guys that have got a good skill level and have the ability to shoot the basketball. They're putting in a ton of time. It's going to be a big part of how we play."
Also helping to create outside opportunities was the inside play of Bennett Koch, who took advantage of the three-inch height advantage he had over the tallest Braves' starter.
"The activity level is what I was so impressed with," Jacobson said of Koch, who scored nine of his 13 points in the first half. "When he's that active, that's going to allow some space for some other guys. And we saw that. Just him being so active and putting pressure on their defense is going to open up some things for his teammates."
CLEANING UP: Outside shooting isn't the only area where UNI appeared to take a major step forward Monday.
After going minus-8 in rebounding in a Friday loss to North Carolina, the Panthers dominated the glass Monday, outrebounding Alcorn State 47-27.
Koch had a team-best 13 rebounds, while Pickford joined him in the double-double club, grabbing 10 boards to go along with 16 points.
Hoping to make major strides after averaging a minus-7.3 rebounding differential a season ago, no one in the Panther locker room was satisfied with Friday's performance. But after putting an entire offseason of work into improving in that area, all parties felt a major step forward was taken Monday.
"Coach has put a list down of things we need to work on (and) rebounding is definitely one of them," Koch said. "Before the season started ... that was something we really practiced and really worked at every single day. We've really put in a lot more effort than in previous years and I think it's paying off so far."
Part of the improvement comes from newcomer Pickford, who recorded half of his rebounds at the offensive end. Aside from the production boost, Jacobson says the effort of the 6-foot-4 freshman has put some of his frontcourt players on notice.
"It has such an impact on the game we're in (and) it puts some heat on the rest of our guys," Jacobson said. "If you're supposed to go in and rebound and you've got a freshman in here that's going and getting it a bunch, if you're Klint (Carlson), Bennett, Ted (Friedman), Luke (McDonnell), the guys that are also supposed to rebound. That's having a real impact on our team."
HALDEMAN GOES DOWN LATE: The mood of the night was briefly hampered late in the second half when Haldeman took a hard fall and left the game holding his neck.
Jacobson, who didn't provide specifics on the injury, didn't expect it to be a long-term issue, saying "he seems fine."
Jacobson also had no updates on injuries to Wyatt Lohaus (toe), Hunter Rhodes (foot) and Justin Dahl (neck), who have yet to return to the practice floor.