CEDAR FALLS, Iowa —
Tests keep coming Indiana State’s way … and the Sycamores keep passing them.
The latest test for the men’s basketball team was a trip to Northern Iowa, the first road game of the Missouri Valley Conference season.
There were some nervous moments down the stretch, but the Sycamores held on for a 65-61 victory to move to 2-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference.
"I think about how hard we've worked and how determined we are. It's about guys stepping up at the right times. We're just grinding it out. That's been our theme since Hawaii," ISU center Jake Kitchell said.
The victory was ISU's third in a row and fifth in its last six contests. ISU is one of four 2-0 teams in the MVC. Bradley, Creighton and Wichita State are the others.
Justin Gant continued his strong play with 18 points. Gant was 8 of 12 from the field and had six rebounds. UNI’s Seth Tuttle led all scorers with 24 points, but he had praise for Gant.
"He’s a tough player and his motor is always going. Those are the types of players you need to have to win and he got it done for them tonight," said Tuttle, who like Gant, is a sophomore.
Not everything went right for ISU, but the Sycamores made sure their runs stuck and made sure UNI never got the momentum needed for a comeback. ISU never trailed after the 1:53 mark in the first half.
"After what happened at Wichita State [UNI lost 66-41 on Sunday], we knew we'd get their best shot. They competed like crazy, they fought hard, but our guys found a way," ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
ISU (9-4, 2-0) bit their nails to the bone in the final minute as free throw woes kept the Sycamores from putting the Panthers away.
ISU had seemingly closed the deal when Odum was fouled by Tuttle with a second left in the shot clock at 1:32. Tuttle fouled out on the play and Odum drained both free throws to put ISU up 59-54.
"He got me. That's about it. I knew he'd be the one shooting the ball. To be honest, I thought he'd pull up, so I jumped to try and contest it. It was a great move," Tuttle said.
"When I saw he had the switch on me, I knew I could either get to the basket or get him on an up-fake. I got him in the air, and after that, it was easy. I just jumped into him," Odum said.
ISU then got a stop when Koch missed a shot in the lane. ISU worked the clocked down and Arop eventually drained a 10-footer to put ISU up 61-54 with 44 seconds left.
But it wasn’t over as ISU’s free throw difficulties nearly cost them.
Chip Rank hit a 3-pointer for UNI with 36 seconds left to keep the Panthers alive. Odum was fouled and made just 1 of 2 at the line. Anthony James then made a layup to draw UNI back to within three with 28 seconds to go.
The process repeated itself as Odum made 1 of 2 at the line and James converted a layup with 15 seconds left to make it 63-61.
Odum once again made just 1 of 2 at the line with 11.8 seconds left to make it 64-61 and give UNI a chance to tie the game on the last possession. But Marc Sonnen stepped on the sideline on an inbounds pass with 5.8 seconds left. Lucas Eitel drained a free throw with 3.8 seconds left to seal it and ISU was able to breathe a sigh of relief.
ISU was 4 of 8 at the line in the final minute.
"It's definitely frustrating for me. I'm the leader and I have to hit those [free throws]. I just happy we won though," Odum said. "We didn't play all that well, but we played good enough. That's huge to get a win this early in the season on the road."
The first half played out in three acts. Fortunately for the Sycamores, the first act was the shortest. UNI scored on five of its first six possessions with Tuttle providing seven of the points as the Panthers took an 11-6 lead.
At the first media timeout, Lansing straightened the Sycamores out and their heretofore absent defense returned with a purpose. UNI had five turnovers in six trips down the floor and ISU pounced. An 11-0 run put the Sycamores in front 17-11 near the midway point of the first half.
The rest of the half played out as expected — a defensive battle characterized by spurts of offense for both teams. A 9-2 UNI run put the Panthers up 29-25 at the 4:49 mark, but ISU responded with a 7-0 run to reclaim the lead at 32-29.
UNI tied it again with 1:53 left in the half, but ISU broke the stalemate in the final two minutes prior to halftime. Kitchell -- who tied a season-high with eight points -- converted a traditional three-point play with 57.9 seconds left to put ISU in front. Tuttle then went over Khristian Smith’s back on a rebound attempt and Smith converted a pair of free throws to give ISU a 37-32 halftime advantage.
Nine different Sycamores scored in the first half.
A quick second half start saw ISU take its biggest lead at 46-38. Gant was the scoring catalyst as the sophomore scored eight of ISU’s first 10 second-half points. ISU’s defense did its part as UNI came up empty on five of its first seven possessions.
UNI would draw closer — ever so slowly — as foul trouble and a shooting drought held the Sycamores back for much of the second half. After its early spurt, ISU converted just four field goals in the final 16 minutes of the second half.
"It seemed like we were up eight a lot and could never stretch it out. That's just because [UNI} is tough," Lansing said.
ISU’s saving grace was that the Panthers had an equally hard time getting on the board. The Panthers (7-7, 0-2) couldn’t cut their deficit to a single-possession gap until the 6:09 mark.
From there, it was a nail-biting battle of wits … and missed opportunities for both teams.
ISU built a 55-50 lead, but could have had a bigger lead as it suffered miss free throws. ISU also had empty possessions on trips that could have cushioned the lead.
But UNI had no more success cutting ISU’s lead than the Sycamores had in building it. UNI got within three points on three different occasions prior to the final minute, but couldn’t get the conversion to get it over the top.
"Every time they got it to three, I kind of think we answered it," Lansing said. "We didn't do what we needed to do on the defensive end because we fouled them too much and allowed penetration, but we made enough free throws and made a couple of buckets to hold them off."
ISU will face yet another test on Saturday as the Sycamores travel to Creighton to play the 16th-ranked Bluejays.
INDIANA STATE (65) – Arop 4-9 1-2 9, Gant 8-12 1-1 18, Cummings 1-4 1-2 3, Odum 3-8 9-13 16, Mahurin 1-2 2-3 4, Kitchell 2-4 4-5 8, Eitel 1-2 1-2 4, Brown 0-1 1-2 1, Burnett 0-0 0-0 0, K. Smith 0-3 2-2 2. 20-45 FG, 22-32 FT, 65 TP.
NORTHERN IOWA (61) – Mitchell 2-5 2-3 6, Tuttle 9-14 4-7 24, Koch 3-7 1-1 8, Sonnen 1-3 0-0 3, James 6-16 0-0 12, Rank 1-1 2-4 5, Bohannon 1-5 0-0 3, Buss 0-1 0-0 0, Morrison 0-1 0-0 0, Martino 0-1 0-0 0. 23-54 FG, 9-15 FT, 61 TP.
Halftime score – ISU 37-32. 3-point goals – ISU 3-10 (Gant 1-2, Eitel 1-2, Odum 1-1, Arop 0-2, Cummings 0-2, Mahurin 0-1), UNI 6-19 (Tuttle 2-2, Bohannon 1-5, Sonnen 1-3, Koch 1-2, Rank 1-1, James 0-4, Mitchell 0-1, Buss 0-1). Rebounds – ISU 32 (Gant 6, K. Smith 6, Arop 4, Kitchell 4, Team 3, Cummings 2, Odum 2, Eitel 2, Brown 2, Mahurin), UNI 29 (Tuttle 10, Koch 7, James 6, Rank 4, Bohannon 2), Assists – ISU 5 (Odum 2, Cummings, Eitel, K. Smith), UNI 12 (Koch 5, James 4, Mitchell 2, Tuttle), Steals – ISU 9 (Odum 5, Arop, Mahurin, Kitchell, Brown), UNI 9 (Koch 3, Mitchell, Tuttle, Sonnen, Rank, Bohannon, Buss), Blocks – ISU 2 (Eitel, K. Smith), UNI 0, Turnovers – ISU 14 (Arop 3, Odum 3, Cummings 2, Kitchell 2, Brown 2, Gant, K. Smith), UNI 15 (James 6, Rank 2, Mitchell, Tuttle, Koch, Sonnen, Buss, Morrison, Team), Total fouls – ISU 17, UNI 22. Fouled out – Tuttle, Bohannon. A – 4035.
Next – ISU (9-4, 2-0) plays at Creighton on Saturday. UNI (7-7, 0-2) plays at Illinois State on Saturday.