ST. LOUIS – Northern Iowa's defense played at a championship level.
Inconsistent offense, however, prevented the Panthers from extending their season Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Loyola held UNI to one field goal over a 10-minute stretch of the second half and prevailed, 54-50, as the Panthers took the Scottrade Center court for the second time in 16 hours attempting to pull off a historic upset.
The Ramblers (26-5) became the 43rd top seed in as many years to win a quarterfinal game in this tournament. UNI (16-16) made the MVC regular season champions work for almost every single point.
"I thought it was a classic Valley game, especially with Northern Iowa," said Loyola's Porter Moser, the MVC Coach of the Year. "It was gritty. It was the tough. It was ugly at times. Just crazy how well they defend. They really guard you."
Loyola won despite MVC Player of the Year Clayton Custer being held to two points on 1 of 7 shooting.
Marques Townes provided the Ramblers with their only consistent source of offense early, frequently creating paths to the rim and finishing with 13 points.
Donte Ingram matched that scoring total. His 3-pointer after UNI's seventh first-half turnover gave Loyola a 25-21 lead at intermission, despite trailing throughout the majority of the opening 20 minutes.
While UNI (16-16) largely dictated tempo, that late first half 3-pointer was one example of how a Loyola team that finished with a 14-2 advantage in points of turnovers found success in transition.
"You make a mistake, and they turn it into quick points," UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. "We didn't have a lot of those today, but this is the kind of team that, boy, you just can't make mistakes against them."
After trailing by as many as six points early in the second half, a pair of seniors helped UNI's offense find a brief spurt of momentum. Point guard Hunter Rhodes knocked down back-to-back, pull-up jumpers and center Bennett Koch scored off a post move as part of his game-high 20 points to cap an 8-0 run that gave UNI a 37-33 lead with 11:19 remaining.
Despite falling into an offensive lull over the next 10 minutes, UNI still led until Ben Richardson hit a jumper to tie the score at 37 at the 8:15 mark. Richardson then added a miraculous, contested long-distance 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer to give Loyola a lead with seven minutes remaining that the Ramblers never relinquished.
"With nine minutes left, we have the momentum, we have the upper hand and we have the lead," Jacobson said. "That stretch hurt us, but, man, the guys, they stay battled their tails off, and we still had all the important stuff with nine minutes to go."
UNI later cut an eight-point deficit to three, and had a chance to draw even after Loyola missed the front end on back-to-back, one-and-one free throw opportunities.
Wyatt Lohaus made it a one-possession game with a shot-fake and 3-pointer before Isaiah Brown missed a second open look from distance that would have tied the game down the stretch. Richardson then hit a pair of free throws to push the Loyola lead back to five with 10 seconds remaining.
The loss capped a late-season push from a UNI team that got off to an 0-5 league start, and was forced to battle back for a third consecutive year. Forwards Klint Carlson and Ted Friedman join Rhodes and Koch as seniors who will depart UNI's program.
"I think no matter which way you slice this game up here, we had the same chance to win today as Loyola did, and they've got a terrific team," Jacobson said. "I'm just proud of our guys. We were fighting uphill the entire conference season, and we still played our best in the last three weeks.
"That says a lot about the seniors we've got. Those guys were pretty special that way. They were going to do everything that they could within their power and with the influence they had on their teammates so that, no matter what our record was, we were going to play our best when it mattered most. ... Those guys deserve a ton of credit for that."
END OF AN ERA: Next season will mark the first year Jacobson hasn't had a member of the Koch family on his roster as UNI's head coach. Bennett Koch joined his older brothers, Adam and Jake, as members of the 1,000-career point club. The Koch family is only the fourth in the nation to have three brothers reach 1,000 points at the NCAA Division I level.
"It's been an absolutely fantastic experience, getting to know the coaches so well over these 12 years," Bennett Koch said. "It's been a blast throughout the entire time. Family's always been very supportive.
"I don't know how my parents do it. They drive to almost every game (from Ashwaubenon, Wis.) for 12 years. That's a lot of mileage."