CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — 1 down, 17 to go.
In a game they led from start to finish, Missouri State fended off Northern Iowa, 68-63. Star senior Dequon Miller scored a team-high 17 points in the win while sophomore Ryan Kreklow iced the contest with four free throws.
“It’s huge,” said Kreklow about the win to Jim Connell of Springfield News-Leader. “1-0 in ‘The Valley’ so far — We’ve got a long way to go, but I think it shows that we’re growing a lot as a team.”
Missouri State dominated the Panthers in the first half. 2015-16 Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year Dequon Miller started the party with the game’s first five points. JUCO transfer Alize Johnson soon got in on the act, draining two triples to extend the early edge.
From Miller and Johnson, Kreklow made a three-pointer and Obediah Church had a layup. The two baskets marked the end of a 24-4 run that lasted 9 minutes and 46 seconds. The Bears made 6 three-pointers and were 10-for-16 from the field during the mauling.
Despite the start of Northern Iowa’s offensive motor, the Bears’ lead only grew. Back-to-back three-pointers, another by Kreklow and one by Ronnie Rousseau III, supplied Paul Lusk’s team with their largest advantage, 32-8. However, the Panthers had plenty of time to work with.
“We played about as well as we could [at the start], but they’ve won a lot of [conference] championships and been in a lot of big games,” said Missouri State head coach Paul Lusk. “We knew they were going to come back, and it got a little bit crazy.”
On November 18, Northern Iowa erased an 18-point second half deficit to defeat Oklahoma.
With a Klint Carlson free throw at the 6:21 mark, the Panthers began another rally.
Driven by 2016-17 MVC Preseason Player of the Year Jeremy Morgan and senior Jordan Ashton, Northern Iowa closed the half on a 14-7 spurt, cutting the halftime margin to 17
After fighting off another barrage of Bears’ baskets, Northern Iowa began a final push down 55-37 with 12:01 remaining.
None other than Morgan ignited the last lunge. The senior posted 8 of his game-high 28 without any response from Missouri State. A lead that was once 24 was down to 10.
Later, Morgan’s personal 8-0 spurt became an 18-5 attack. The Panthers’ once insurmountable deficit was now just two possessions, 60-55.
“We were drowning there for a little bit,” Lusk said. “But, we had a little bit of air left in us, and we found a way to get out of that dangerous water and come out of here with a great win.”
Although the Bears’ offense began to hibernate, a Jarrid Rhodes jumper sent Northern Iowa back-peddling. Moreover, Johnson’s 10th rebound provided an extra possession and 30 cherished seconds to fade from a remaining 1:30.
While Morgan’s 998th and 999th career points pulled the Panthers within one basket for the first time since the opening minutes, four made free throws by Kreklow sealed Missouri State’s conference opening victory.
“I know none of the guys in the locker room have [won at UNI],” said Lusk. “I’m just proud of our guys.”
On 10-for-21 shooting, Jeremy Morgan finished with 28 points. It was the 7th contest the senior led the team in scoring. To complement Morgan, sophomore Bennett Koch had 16 points while redshirt freshman Spencer Haldeman contributed 9.
Just as so many times before, Dequon Miller was the leading scorer in a conference showdown. The Charleston, West Virginia, native swished 5 three-pointers in a 17-point, 5-rebound, 3-assist performance. Alize Johnson’s 12 points and 10 rebounds secured his 7th double-double of the season. Ryan Kreklow and Jarrid Rhodes had 13 points and 11 points respectively.
For the second time, 5-7 Northern Iowa is skidding on a three-game losing streak. The Panthers were previously defeated by Iowa and #8 North Carolina. Sunday afternoon, Ben Jacobson’s squad will travel to Evansville for a rematch of last season’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship.
10-4 Missouri State has arguably collected their biggest wins over the last seven days. The Bears return home to host Indiana State, who was defeated by Wichita State on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for Saturday at 12 p.m. EST from JQH Arena.
– P. Wesner