Three days after nearly knocking off one of the Missouri Valley’s top teams, Loyola gets another chance for an upset Wednesday when Northern Iowa visits Gentile Arena.
Loyola dropped a 74-73 thriller to Evansville on Sunday, the team’s fourth one-possession loss of conference play. The Ramblers erased a 19-point deficit and took a one-point lead in the final minute but could not close out the win.
However, D.J. Balentine’s game-winning floater for Evansville with 10.8 seconds left would not have mattered had Loyola competed better in the first half. The Ramblers dug a 50-36 halftime hole as the Aces shot 65.5 percent from the field.
If the Ramblers are going to have a favorable result against Northern Iowa, they cannot afford such a poor half again.
“We’ve got to be that team in the second half,” coach Porter Moser said after the loss to Evansville. “I love the no quit in them. They truly believed and fought their way back, but moving forward we’ve got to be that second-half team. I told the veterans our job for the next 48 hours is to prepare for Northern Iowa with that second-half mentality that we had.”
Loyola defeated Northern Iowa last month on the road, 51-41. However, the Panthers are a changed ball club since then.
Northern Iowa sits in fifth place, but the team is dangerous enough to contend for the conference tournament title next month. The Panthers rank No. 97 in KenPom and are 3-0 against nationally ranked teams, including victories against national title contenders North Carolina and Iowa State.
Most recently, Northern Iowa ended Wichita State’s nation-leading 43-game home winning streak. The Panthers have now won six games in a row after starting 2-6 in the Valley. They have steamrolled lower-level competition during this stretch and have wins against second-place competitors Evansville and Southern Illinois as well.
Senior guard Wes Washpun has excelled at point guard in these six games, averaging 10.8 points and 5.8 assists. Junior guard Jeremy Morgan has made a case for being one of the conference’s best all-around players, displaying his ability to affect the game in a variety during the winning streak. Morgan has scored in double digits in four of the games, had five or more assists twice, two blocks three times and one game with a career-high seven steals.
The Loyola veterans, whose leadership Moser credits for the team’s improvement over the last month, have responded well to the coach’s challenge regarding preparation.
“We build a lot of character off this game — character is how you bounce back,” senior guard Devon Turk said. “We’ve got to have a better first half. We’ve got to come out ready to play from the beginning.”
If the Ramblers wait until the second half again, they will have a tough time fighting back against the Valley’s hottest team.