CEDAR FALLS — If Anthony James was as much of a missing link for the University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball team as he appeared to be in Wednesday’s loss at Southern Illinois, he didn’t miss a beat filling back in Saturday.
James returned from injury for senior night, fueled the Panthers’ rally from an 11-point first-half deficit and helped hold off the Redbirds for an 80-72 victory in front of 6,621 at the McLeod Center.
After UNI (18-13, 11-7 MVC) missed its first eight 3-pointers and Illinois State (17-14, 8-10) surged ahead 19-8, James scored 13 of his team-high 19 points in the first half. His deep 3-pointer was UNI’s first to find the net and gave the home team its first lead.
“Anybody can come in and make a shot. Sitting out Wednesday, it was kind of difficult seeing guys not hit shots they normally hit,” James said about returning to spark the offense.
“Not being able to help any way I could, not saying I was going to make shots, but not being able to have a presence to go out and help my team was hard. That’s why I made sure I was in the best shape possible to help tonight.”
The senior made three 3-pointers in the final 3:13 of the half, and it also helped Marc Sonnen get hot. After missing his first five deep balls, Sonnen followed James’ lead and got one to go in the first half, then opened the second half by making five of his first seven to put the Panthers up as many as 12.
“When you miss a shot, sometimes you think about it, but when you have teammates who push you and coaches who are encouraging you and helping you out, you feel more confident after you miss a shot sometimes than after you make one,” said Sonnen, who made six shots in all to finish with 18 points.
Illinois State, fueled by Tyler Brown’s 28 points, cut the deficit to one point on three separate occasions but didn’t have enough juice to make a shot to claim the lead in the final minutes.
“When you have to ask a guy to do that much, it’s hard,” said Illinois State coach Dan Muller about Brown, who ended up with nine turnovers as UNI cranked up the defensive intensity late.
With the win, UNI (18-13, 11-7 MVC) finishes alone in the third place in the final Missouri Valley Conference standings and will take a No. 3 seed into a rematch with the sixth-seeded Redbirds at the conference tournament Friday night in St. Louis.
At Arch Madness, the Panthers hope to find the same kind of rebounding urgency they had Saturday. UNI tallied a 41-27 edge on the boards for the night, which included 18 offensive rebounds — compared to the Redbirds’ four — with 14 of those coming in the first half.
“Clearly, our rebounding effort in the first half was abysmal,” said Muller. “No offen-sive rhythm in the first half because we were either giving up offensive rebounds or we were fouling them.”
Illinois State was hot from the opening tip, scoring 19 points in the first six minutes. But just four points came over the next nine minutes as the Panthers charged back.
Foul trouble played a role for both teams as Illinois State’s All-MVC big man Jackie Carmichael was held to just five points and six rebounds. Sonnen fouled out for the Panthers with 4:57 remaining, but a team effort down the stretch lifted UNI.
Jake Koch ended up with 18 points and 11 rebounds, Seth Tuttle chipped in 15 points and 12 boards and Deon Mitchell put up six assists against zero turnovers.
“I think it was important to be able to win this game, so we have a little better feel-ing about things heading into a week of practice and going to St. Louis,” said head coach Ben Jacobson about preparing for the rematch. “That’s very valuable, but I also feel like we our guys have a lot of confidence and really trust each other. Win or lose tonight, I don’t know if that would’ve changed much.”