ST. LOIUS — Northern Iowa held a 35-17 lead early in the second half of Sunday’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game and appeared ticketed for its fifth NCAA Tournament under coach Ben Jacobson.
Then, the final 17 minutes happened. A 15-3 Bradley run, along with a six-point swing near the two-minute mark after an AJ Green foul, Luke McDonnell technical foul and Elijah Childs layup gave the Braves a five-point lead. It ended in a 57-54 Bradley win when Wyatt Lohaus’ 50-footer at the buzzer went wide.
“First half was great,” Green said after scoring a game-high 23 points and receiving all-tournament honors. “We were playing hard, defending, but, yeah, you’ve got to put together 40 minutes.”
Bradley (20-14) outscored the Panthers 42-27 in the second half and set an MVC tournament championship record in overcoming its 18-point deficit.
“They were covered (shots),” Jacobson said of Bradley’s outburst. “It wasn’t a situation where it felt like they were — guys were completely uncovered when they shot them. I think our defense was great for 30 minutes. Their offense was just better than our defense in that four, five-minute stretch.”
McDonnell’s technical foul on Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye was unseen by many on UNI’s bench. After the game, McDonnell had only a simple explanation to offer.
“(The referee) said I got him with the elbow after the play.”
Jacobson said he was proud of his team’s response after the technical, getting back within one on a McDonnell layup and Green jumper.
“I haven’t seen the play yet,” Jacobson offered. “They said it was clear that Luke had brought his arms up and caught him above the shoulders. They were confident that they made the right call. Yeah, at that point, if he makes both free throws, we’re down one. Instead, we’re down five. That’s the worst possible scenario at that point in a basketball game.”
Lohaus, who was named to the all-tournament team after averaging 18 points in his three games, explained how Bradley’s defensive adjustments made things difficult.
“They switched one through five a couple times,” Lohaus said. “They were kind of switching up how they guarded the ball-screen. And then compared to the last two games, they were pressed up with their five man even when they weren’t switching. So we didn’t have as much room for the pull-ups.”
With his 13th season as UNI’s head coach in the books, Jacobson offered high, distinctive praise for his team that overcame a number of injuries to end up only a few points short of an NCAA Tournament berth despite its 16-18 final record.
“That work ethic on a daily basis brought us to the point where we started to play pretty good,” Jacobson explained. “It’s the most growth, and it’s one of the more remarkable things I’ve seen, given all of the stuff that was — all of the moving parts in November and December. I see these guys every day, so I’m not surprised. But, I’m just telling you, it’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve been a part of.”