Panthers welcome Big Sky juggernaut in CIT semifinals

With a home game in the tournament’s championship game on the line, the Northern Iowa Panthers will welcome their fourth straight CIT opponent into the McLeod Center on Saturday when Weber State invades Cedar Falls.

The Panthers and Wildcats will tip off at 7 p.m. The winner will host Tuesday’s championship game of the tournament against either Evansville (21-14) or East Carolina (21-12).

Cedar Falls will host another game in the CIT and it will come just one day after Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson agreed to a 10-year contract extension. He was reportedly being courted by Minnesota for its head coaching job but opted to remain in Cedar Falls until at least 2023.

“I appreciate the continued support from our administration, community and student body. I’m thrilled to sign this new deal,” Jacobson said in a statement. “The University of Northern Iowa is a special place made so by great people.”

Northern Iowa Athletic Director Troy Dannen’s statement talked about his approval of what Jacobson has done in Northern Iowa, guiding the Panthers to five straight seasons of 20-plus victories.

“We could not be more proud to have Ben Jacobson continue to lead our men’s basketball program well into the future,” Dannen said in a statement released by the school. “Ben is not only one of the top young coaches in the nation but he’s also a great educator and mentor.”

Both Jacobson and Dannen hope the Panthers can give the Cedar Falls community and the program another home game at the McLeod Center.

To do so, Northern Iowa (21-14) will have to dispatch Weber State, which finished 18-2 in the Big Sky Conference and has won 16 of its last 17 games. The only loss in that stretch came against Big Sky champion Montana in the conference title game.

The Wildcats are 10-4 on the road this year and can match the school record for road wins in a season if they can end the Panthers’ season Saturday. Weber State is averaging 76 points per game and has a plus-15 scoring margin. They shoot an NCAA-best 50 percent from the floor and 41 percent from distance.

The three guys Northern Iowa will have to identify at the defensive end of the floor will be Davion Berry, Kyle Tresnak and Scott Bamforth.

Berry leads the squad at 15 points, four rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He had 27 points and 10 assists in the win over Oral Roberts in the CIT quarterfinals. Bamforth had 18 points against Oral Roberts and averages nearly 14 points per game after he buried a school-record 95 3-pointers this season. Tresnak is scoring 12 points and pulling down 5.5 boards per contest. The 6-foot-10 Tresnak had 19 points and eight rebounds in the victory over Oral Roberts.

The Panthers are 16-3 at home. The 16 wins at home is a school record and the Panthers are 41-8 in nonconference home games since the McLeod Center opened in 2006.

UNI senior Anthony James is averaging more than 20 points per game in the three previous CIT wins. Sophomore Seth Tuttle is scoring 17.7 per game in those three games. James, Tuttle, Marc Sonnen and Jake Koch are all scoring in double figures for the Panthers.

Sonnen also set a school record this year for 3-pointers in a season. UNI has hit 225 triples this season, which also is a school record.

Northern Iowa reached the CIT semifinals after victories over North Dakota, Illinois-Chicago and Bradley. Weber State (29-6), which is coached by Iowa native Randy Rahe, beat Cal Poly, Air Force and Oral Roberts in the first three CIT games. This is the first meeting between the two schools.