CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – When Northern Iowa's senior classed traveled to St. Louis as freshmen, they returned with a Missouri Valley Conference championship trophy. In the following two trips to "Arch Madness" they returned to Cedar Falls with opening round losses.
"It's always tough. Coming in we haven't been playing our best basketball by any means heading into St. Louis," senior Jake Koch said. "I think we just feel more confident this year."
The Panthers enter the postseason tournament winning nine of their last 13. The most recent win came on senior night against Illinois State. The teams will square off again, six days later, at 8:30 p.m. in the Scottrade Center.
Friday marks the teams' sixth match-up in the last two years. UNI owns victories in both of its meetings with Illinois State this season. The Redbirds took two of the three games last year, including a win in the MVC quarterfinals.
"I think I'd rather play somebody different," UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. "Two years ago we played Creighton in the final regular season game and turned around and played them again on Friday. It just seems a little different, a little bit out of sorts."
The Panthers fell to the Bluejays 60-57 in the quarterfinals in 2011.
But like Koch noted, this version of Northern Iowa may trump the last two.
The four losses during the final 13 games came by a total of 16 points. They came as part of two two-game losing streaks. The first came on the road in a one-point loss to Indiana State and an in overtime against Evansville. UNI held the lead with one second remaining against the Sycamores and led against Evansville with as little as 31 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Panthers suffered their second string of back-to-back losses in identical 63-57 decisions to Denver and Southern Illinois. Against Denver, UNI's leading scorer and all MVC second-teamer Anthony James left with a knee contusion. The injury sidelined James against the Salukis as well.
"We're good. We're all healthy," Koch said. "I know AJ's been getting treatment; we all have with the nicks and injuries we have."
James played 36 minutes in the regular season finale against Illinois State, leading the Panthers with 19 points. UNI's starting five – Koch, James, Marc Sonnen, Seth Tuttle and Deon Mitchell – have won 11 of 13 together.
Three of those starters, Koch, James and Sonnen, have compiled 40 wins since their freshmen trip to St. Louis.
But it wasn't their last journey to the city that year. UNI parlayed its MVC tournament championship into a Sweet Sixteen run housed in St. Louis.
This year, with only two postseason wins since, the Panthers are looking to rekindle that magic.
"(It'd be) amazing. I wouldn't know what to do when that final horn goes," Koch said. "It would just be something special for us and hopefully we can do that for the seniors and the community."