Panthers bump into familiar foe in CIT quarterfinals

CEDAR FALLS – The Panthers’ postseason journey runs through a familiar foe tonight.

After earning a regular season sweep, the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team squares off with Bradley for the third time this year in the quarterfinal round of the Tournament at the McLeod Center. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

“We know plenty about Bradley,” UNI coach Ben Jacobsen said at Monday’s media luncheon.

“That will be a little different kind of game than the last two that we’ve had here at home in this tournament because we’re so familiar with Bradley and they are with us.”

UNI (20-14) blasted the Braves 84-53 at home Jan. 12, before edging out a 68-65 victory in Peoria, Ill. Feb. 12. The Panthers are coming off CIT victories over North Dakota (77-66) and Illinois-Chicago (63-51) – both at the McLeod Center.

Marc Sonnen, who ranks sixth in the nation in 3-point percentage (44.9), led a prolific Panther offense in the first meeting. The senior guard tied a McLeod Center record with seven triples, while UNI also equaled a school record sinking 15 shots beyond the arc as all five starters scored in double figures.

Sonnen averaged 18 points in the two games against Bradley and connected on 10-of-17 attempts from deep en route to setting the school single season mark for made 3-pointers this year (92). The St. Paul sharpshooter is just six treys shy of the UNI career record set by current coach Ben Jacobson (203), who owns a 13-4 mark against Bradley.

Second team All-Missouri Valley Conference honoree Anthony James leads the Panthers balanced attack at 13.2 points per game. Seth Tuttle (11.0), Sonnen (10.4) and Jake Koch (10.4) also average double figures, while Deon Mitchell (9.2) is close behind.

The Braves (18-16) are propelled by the backcourt tandem of Walt Lemon Jr. and Dyricus Simms-Edwards. Lemon Jr. is averaging 15.5 points per game and is a second team All-MVC selection while Simms-Edwards tallies 12.4 points per outing. The duo combined for 50 points in the Braves’ three-point loss to UNI in Peoria including a career-high 32 from Simms-Edwards. Both players also were recognized on the MVC All-Defensive team.

While Jacobson is well aware of Bradley’s talented backcourt, it’s an improved frontcourt that the Panthers will have to be ready for.

Will Egolf, a 6-foot-9 forward, didn’t play in the first game in Cedar Falls and is averaging 9.8 points and a team-best 5.5 rebounds, while Tyshon Pickett is scoring 10.9.

“(Egolf) is really playing well right now,” Jacobson said.

“He makes 3-point shots, he’s scoring on the block. Tyshon Pickett has continued to get better and better as the year has gone on. Their two inside guys are the most different from a month and half ago until now. They’re both playing really well.”

Bradley, which advanced to the quarterfinals with wins over Green Bay (75-69) and Tulane (77-72) – both in Peoria, leads the series with UNI 27-22 all-time but is just 1-6 at the McLeod Center.

Egolf tallied a career-best 22 points against Green Bay before adding 20 points and 12 boards against Tulane. Picket had 17 in the tournament opener and added seven points and seven boards in the second round.

The Panthers, who have won 20 or more games for the fifth consecutive season (best in the MVC), have held the upper hand of late against the Braves winning 10 of the last 12 meetings between the schools.

To continue that success, the Panthers will need to keep Bradley out of the paint as much as possible said Jacobson.

“Edwards and Lemon do such a good job of getting the ball in the paint. We’ve got to find a way to stay in front of them and keep them out of the lane,” Jacobson said.

“With Pickett and Egolf, they score it enough in the lane. We’ve really got to defend the paint.”

Fast starts have propelled the Panthers in the previous two contests. UNI jumped out to a 22-2 lead in the first game at Cedar Falls and led 37-18 at halftime in Peoria.

The winner advances to the semifinals March 30-31 with an opponent to be determined.