Faith in defense lifts Northern Iowa to national prominence

NORMAL, Ill. — Northern Iowa trailed by 12 points against Illinois State with 10:46 remaining. In a hostile road environment at Redbird Arena, a come-from-behind win seemed unlikely for the Panthers. Their win probability had sunk below 10 percent, according to Kenpom.

But a rare defensive switch by coach Ben Jacobson sparked a comeback as the Panthers went on to win 54-53.

The Panthers, who play almost exclusively man-to-man defense, were getting torched by the Redbirds’ quick guards.

“Offensively they were really getting to us,” Jacobson said. “They were getting what they wanted. We weren’t able to step up and meet the challenge in our man to man.”

So Jacobson switched his team in a 3-2 zone with sophomore Jeremy Morgan manning the point position.

The 6-foot-5 guard used his length to disrupt Illinois State’s offensive flow, and suddenly the Redbirds could not score. Over the next six minutes, Illinois State shot 0-of-11 from the field with a pair of turnovers.

Morgan had a block and a pair of steals as Northern Iowa made its comeback.

“He’s got enough size and length and he’s got a good enough feel where he can make it kind of tough in that spot, tough to get the ball past him from side to side,” Jacobson said. ” I thought our communication behind it, I thought Seth [Tuttle] and [Marvin Singleton] did a great job of making some reads. But Jeremy’s got enough length to bother some things up front.”

The Redbirds had their chances to score. The downside to the Panthers’ zone was that they struggled on the defensive boards. Illinois State had an offensive possession that lasted well over one minute and produced four field-goal attempts, but it did not make a shot until the 3:58 mark when sophomore guard Paris Lee nailed a jumper.

Northern Iowa and Illinois State traded baskets in the final three minutes, and the Panthers got the last say as senior forward Nate Buss drained a 3-pointer from the right corner with 5.2 seconds left.

The defense held up once again on the final possession as Illinois State guard Daishon Knight got into the lane but missed at the buzzer.

The change in the Panthers’ defense midway through the second half came as a bit of a surprise. Jacobson said his team had not played a 3-2 zone all season, except for maybe a few possessions in non-conference play.

But defense, no matter what form it comes in, will continue to be Northern Iowa’s calling card.

“This year we’ve been taking a lot of pride in our defense,” Tuttle said. “Tonight if we didn’t switch it up, we probably lost. And that’s not saying we were playing bad man-to-man defense. They’re a tough team to guard and they were running really good stuff. But tonight the zone was working for us and we stuck with it. … If something’s working, we’ll stick with it. Tonight it was that 3-2 zone.”

Author: Jesse Kramer

Jesse Kramer is the founder of The Catch and Shoot. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He has had work featured on SI.com, College Insider, The Comeback/Awful Announcing, and 247Sports.

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