By LUKE MEREDITH
AP Sports Writer
DES MOINES, Iowa — There were so many moments when Northern Iowa’s postseason hopes seemed buried.
The Panthers lost to Louisville, Stanford and Memphis on back-to-back-to-back nights in November. A neutral floor loss to Iowa didn’t help, and the 4-6 start to league play left them at .500 heading into February.
For Northern Iowa, it was either run the table or forget any hopes of making the NCAA tournament.
The surging Panthers might just pull it off.
Northern Iowa (17-11, 10-6 MVC) opened the month with a win over league-leading Wichita State, and it’s been rolling ever since.
The Panthers have won six straight and are now third in the Missouri Valley behind the Shockers and Creighton — both presumptive NCAA tournament teams — heading into Saturday’s home game against Denver (17-8, 13-2 WAC).
“This group has found their way of doing things successfully. They’ve to come to this on their own. They’ve had to absorb some hard games, and they’ve had to absorb some hard stretches,” coach Ben Jacobson said in a phone interview with The Associated Press from Cedar Falls on Wednesday. “They have found a way to come through that.”
The Panthers have become the hottest team in the Valley because of strong defense and much improved rebounding, both staples of the program under Jacobson. Once again, Northern Iowa has blossomed into an elite defensive team at exactly the right time — and seniors Marc Sonnen, Anthony James and Jake Koch have asserted themselves as leaders.
The Panthers are allowing just 54.8 points a game in their last 10, including a 69-63 win at Missouri State on Tuesday night. They’ve also gotten better on the boards, improving to 9-0 when they beat opponents on the boards.
All but one of Northern Iowa’s last six wins has been by seven points or less. But teams that defend and rebound well and hit their free throws — and Northern Iowa leads the Valley at 76.7 percent from the line — usually have the advantage this time of year.
“This team has found ways to close out games now over the course of the past month, and that’s been led by our three seniors. They’ve been playing great, and they’ve been terrific down the stretch in games,” Jacobson said.
It’s not like such a hot streak came out of nowhere, though. The Panthers supplemented their earlier inability to close out games with some bad luck.
They turned the ball over with 6.5 seconds left and a chance to force overtime on Jan. 2 against Indiana State. Koch was then called for a foul on a desperation heave by the Sycamores at the buzzer of the rematch, and Indiana State hit two free throws for a 59-58 win.
The Panthers also let Evansville rally from six down in the final 1:30 of regulation and overtake them in overtime, 54-51 on Jan. 29. That was their last loss.
“The only time I talked about it is when I said, ‘Hey look, fellas. We’re 4-6 right now, but we’re not that far from 8-2. Our job is to play like we’re 8-2. Don’t let anybody tell you or define by our record of 4-6,’” Jacobson said.
Northern Iowa has done just that — and the schedule sets up nicely for the next two weeks.
The Panthers finish with a road date against Southern Illinois, currently in last in the Valley, and a home game against Illinois State (16-11, 7-8) on March 2.
It’s hard not to look ahead and envision the Panthers heading to the Valley tournament in St. Louis with a nine-game winning streak and a postseason resume that would be tough to ignore.
“We’ve got a good team. I’ve felt that way, and I’ve told our guys that the entire time,” Jacobson said. “I really like our team. I like the way we’re playing right now.”
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