CEDAR FALLS, Iowa This was major progress. A victory just kind of came along with it.
"The win was certainly big, but the way we played and got the win was as big, or maybe even bigger," Northern Iowa Coach Ben Jacobson said after an 82-75 win over Saint Mary's (Calif.) Sunday afternoon at the McLeod Center.
The rigors of a mostly brutal non-conference schedule may have caught up to UNI. In its previous two games, Iowa and UNLV pretty much rolled the Panthers.
So the focus here was getting back that competitive spirit.
"Heart was one of the main things we talked about," said UNI forward Seth Tuttle, one of four starters in double figures with a team-high 18 points. "Coach knows we've had a really tough non-conference schedule, and we might have been down after our last two losses. He just talked about finding a way to get it done, finding a way to make plays with a lot of heart."
"Start fresh," said UNI's Jake Koch, who had 16 points and nine boards. "It doesn't matter what's happened in the past. Focus on what's happening right now. Go out and just play our game, and today we were able to do that."
Northern Iowa (7-5) dominated the final 11 minutes, increasing a one-point lead to 15 heading to the final media timeout. It was Tuttle, Koch and Anthony James doing virtually all of the offensive damage with drives to the hoop, 3-point shots and free throws.
UNI shot 56.5 percent in the second half, including making five of seven treys.
"Coach Jake found something in their defense they were having a problem with, so we stuck with it," Tuttle said. "We kept getting good looks, kept having kids making plays for us. We toughened up and got some stops. We just put a little run on there."
UNI did a great job defensively against Saint Mary's point guard Matthew Dellavedova, holding him to nine points, 10 under his average. The Panthers flashed extra help against the outstanding Aussie whenever he would come off a high screen and look to penetrate.
Jorden Page had a game-high 26 points for the Gaels (8-3), including six triples. This game was delayed a day because Saint Mary's had problems traveling from the San Francisco area to Cedar Falls due to last week's winter storm in Iowa.
"We knew coming in that Saint Mary's had a good offensive team and that the ball was going to be in the point guard's hands pretty much all the time," said James, who had 15 points. "The last couple of days we were able to work on our pick-and-roll defense, and that helped us out a lot."
After a three-day break for Christmas, UNI will begin preparations for Missouri Valley Conference play, with the first game Dec. 30 at Wichita State. It's a tough task, but at least this team feels considerably better about itself than it has for awhile.
"This was a statement win, I think," Tuttle said.
"There were quite a few things I felt better about this game than in our last two," Jacobson said. "Our movement was better, guys were sharper, more determined. That's what I liked about today's game. To see more guys determined, whether it was the offensive side of the floor or the defensive end of the floor. When it came to rebounding (and) the effort the guys put into guarding Dellavedova. It was a pretty determined effort. That was better."