By Kevin Sweeney
40 minutes wasn’t enough to decide the first meeting between Loyola and Northern Iowa in late January.
It wasn’t enough tonight, either.
For the second time this season, the Ramblers and Panthers dueled for 45 minutes. This time, Loyola won out, using a dominant defensive display in the extra session to win 82-73 over the Missouri Valley leaders after blowing an early 16-point lead. Cameron Krutwig and Keith Clemons combined to score 46 points for the Ramblers, who pull just one game behind UNI for Valley supremacy with four games remaining for each club.
A sellout crowd at Gentile Arena seemed to give Loyola an edge early on, and that energy helped LUC get out to a 25-9 lead less than eight minutes in. While the Ramblers shot the ball extremely well in that stretch (10-13), it was the defense that set the tone. Early turnovers plagued the Panthers, with nine in the game’s first 15 minutes to hinder any sort of flow on the offensive end. The Ramblers also held star UNI guard AJ Green scoreless for the first 15 minutes of the game, which certainly helped keep the Panthers from getting into the flow of things.
Despite the rough start, UNI was able to claw back into the game late in the first half, with Green in particular turning things on. He had seven points and an assist in the final 5 minutes of the period to bring the Panthers within five at the break.
The Panthers continued to battle into the second half, even taking the lead briefly on a triple by Trae Berhow with 9:46 to go that silenced a crowd that was loud from the get-go. The Ramblers responded well to that adversity, slowly extending their lead back to seven points on a three by Clemons with under three minutes to play.
UNI never folded, as a pair of deep threes by Isaiah Brown and a key shot clock violation defensively gave the Panthers a chance to tie the game down by three with under 15 seconds to go. Loyola had four fouls to give and fouled twice early, but did not foul Green a third time. The star sophomore rose up and hit a ridiculous step-back three over the outstretched arms of the much taller Aher Uguak to send the game to overtime. Moser said he wanted his team to foul before the three point attempt, but that a miscommunication occurred (which he ultimately blamed on himself).
In the end, UNI just could never get anything going in the overtime session. Green injured his nose after diving to the floor early in the period and couldn’t find his shot after, missing his first five shots before draining a meaningless jumper in the closing seconds. The Panthers seemed to never look to anyone but Green in OT, as he took the only shot on five of the first six possessions of the extra session. Those stops allowed the Ramblers to pull away and grab their best win of the season.
“[That shot] was just a punch in the gut,” Moser said. “To come back and defend the way we defended and execute in overtime was just a high-character reaction by a high-character group of guys.”
Green led the Panthers with 19 points, but did so on just 8-23 shooting. He also turned it over 7 times. UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said the OT struggles might partially attributed to the nose injury, but that Green should be fine moving forward. Center Austin Phyfe had one of the most impressive stat-lines anywhere this season, posting 12 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 blocks in a battle with Krutwig down low. Spencer Haldeman added 16 points for the 22-4 Panthers.
In addition to strong contributions by Clemons and Krutwig, Porter Moser raved about Aher Uguak’s performance. The redshirt junior forward tallied just 4 points and 6 rebounds, but his defense and hustle plays really provided a major spark.
“Aher’s defense was so good,” Moser said. “His length defensively is elite, and he’s a really good defender.” Moser also noted that Uguak created several open shots on the offensive end with clever screening.”
The win gives Loyola a puncher’s shot at the regular season MVC title, though they still need help from the rest of the conference to claim the league crown. In the meantime, all eyes shift to Arch Madness, where in a few weeks these two clubs could meet one more time with an NCAA Tournament berth on the line.
It might take more than 40 minutes if they do.