CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – Prior to the game Northern Iowa jogged off the court and into the locker room. One Panther remained on the court – kind of.
Jake Koch didn't follow his teammates but he exited the court and ventured into the student section for some final high fives before UNI's game against Creighton.
"I did that against Wichita, so I thought 'Why not?'" Koch said.
Word to the wise Northern Iowa student section; reserve a spot for No. 20 for all future home games. Whether the pregame ritual triggered some luck or something else took over, the senior guided the Panthers (15-11, 8-6 Missouri Valley) to the same result they experienced against Wichita State with a 61-54 win over Creighton (20-6, 9-5 MVC).
In his four years with the Panthers, Wednesday marked the third time he wandered into the stands. This time it was amongst 6,970, the seventh-largest crowd ever at the McLeod Center. The second occurred 12 days ago against Wichita State. The first came his freshman year against Old Dominion. He and the Panthers are now 3 for 3, which might spark a few more crowd engagements.
"If the crowd's there," Koch said. "I'm going to do it"
Initially the superstition worked as well as walking under a ladder before seeing a black cat. Koch missed his first seven shots. Through 35 minutes and 17 seconds of the game, the senior recorded one point. He joined in a team slump that saw four points through 10:26 of the second half. While the Panthers were stuck in neutral, Creighton transformed a six-point deficit into a five-point lead.
Cue Jake Koch.
"I don't know, I just kind of freaked out for a second," Koch said. "I got pumped up. I didn't know what to do."
So he scored. In the final 4:43, he poured in 13 points on 4 of 6 shooting. Overall the Panthers scored 16 during that stretch. The other three came from Linn-Mar grad Matt Bohannon, whose 3-pointer gave UNI a 52-49 lead, one they didn't relinquish.
"As a freshman, my biggest thing is to stay confident in every shot I take and try to make every shot I take even though it's not going to happen," Bohannon said. "I think that's something as the season's gone on, I've done a much better job with."
The 3-pointer marked the last Panther points not scored by Koch. In addition to his 13 points, he hauled in three rebounds and swatted two shots. He also sealed the victory making 5 of 6 free throws in the final 30 seconds. He finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds, both team-highs. If that wasn't enough, his layup with a minute left not only put UNI up five, but it helped him eclipse the 1,000 career point plateau.
"His finish tonight was as good as we've had from a guy on our team," Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said. "At that point we needed somebody to really step forward. And he did that. He really stepped forward."
Doug McDermott did not. Creighton's All-American scored three of his game-high 15 in the second half – all coming with less than 1:30 left. He took a total of three shots in the final 20 minutes, after making 5 of 7 in the first. The Ames native recorded a double-double but the stats didn't tell the story of the UNI defense causing him fits offensively.
"I thought they did a really good job," McDermott said. "They switched a lot of screens with me and they brought an extra defender every time I put it on the floor. So you've got to give them a lot of credit."
Marion's Grant Gibbs tried to pick up the slack scoring nine of his 14 in the second half, but the Panthers forced McDermott to turn the ball over four times. The Bluejays turned it over a season-high 18 times, one more than the previous high against Southern Illinois and Tulsa. Creighton compounded the turnover problem by shooting 35.7 percent (5-14) from the free throw line, a spot it's usually comfortable at making 74.9 percent on the season.
"This isn't rocket science," Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said. "You can not go on the road and turn it over 18 times and shoot 35 percent from the free throw line and expect to win. Plain and simple."
The postgame math in the Missouri Valley conference has Northern Iowa at 8-6, now just a game behind Creighton and Indiana State for second, and two games behind Wichita State.
At the beginning of the month, UNI sat with a losing record in the MVC. After Wednesday, the Panthers boast wins over the conference's best – Wichita State and Creighton, both ranked in the RPI's top 50 - and suddenly Northern Iowa has a pulse in the MVC tournament.
"We're just trying not to let (the seniors) down," Bohannon said. "This is their last shot."