“What (Drake Men’s Basketball has) been able to do in getting it turned around in the last month is a tremendous story. If you watched these guys play in November and December … and now you watch the way they’ve played in the last month, that turnaround is one of the better stories, I think, in college basketball this year.”
That’s what University of Northern Iowa (10-11, 5-5 MVC) head coach Ben Jacobson said of Drake Men’s Basketball after his Panthers defeated the Bulldogs 71-63 in the Knapp Center on Saturday.
The loss snapped a five-game home win streak for DU, the program’s longest since 2011. Drake fell to 7-15, 5-5 MVC, but there were still positive takeaways from the game.
After all, the Bulldogs had played on par with UNI, the team that lost a doubled-overtime thriller to Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year; the team that was predicted to finish third in the Missouri Valley Conference while Drake was picked to finish dead last.
Their records are now even in the MVC, something few would’ve predicted entering the season.
Since a dismal 1-10 start to 2016-17, Drake went on to win 6 of their last 10 entering the UNI game.
Perhaps the biggest change in Drake Men’s Basketball this year is the team’s spirit.
They joke on the benches. They try alley-oops and windmill dunks in warm-ups. They have fun, something that seemed lacking from the 2015-16 Drake men’s basketball squad.
Even after Saturday’s loss, Drake head coach Jeff Rutter still wore a smile on his face entering the postgame press conference. He found the positives to talk about, although he was still able to acknowledge his team’s struggles and weaknesses. His outlook is realistic in its optimism.
“As the team’s confidence has grown, it’s been so fun to watch them make plays out there on the floor,” Rutter said. “We’re kind of in our own little bubble … just trying to get better, enjoy the experience, enjoy the journey, just to be us.”
The Bulldogs only had seven wins in 2015-16. They’ve already matched that mark this season. An upward trajectory is evident.
Despite the Bulldogs’ momentum from an overtime win at Missouri State four days earlier, UNI looked like the superior team out of the gate. As Drake settled for threes and missed the first six, the Panthers started 6-for-9, sinking contested layups and runners to take an early 14-2 lead.
“We didn’t come out with that sense of urgency we needed to have,” junior forward Ore Arogundade said.
After Drake scored six unanswered eight minutes into the first half, trimming UNI’s lead from 12 to six, the Drake student section sounded like it could’ve been the final minutes of the NCAA Tournament, and it stayed that way the final minutes.
Saturday’s game showed another potential change for Drake Basketball: a substantive fan presence.
With 5,237 in attendance — the most since January 2014 — the stands neared capacity, unheard words in the Knapp Center as of late. The turnout was bolstered by the Panther faithful, with plenty of purple speckled amongst the Drake blue in the bleachers, but Bulldog fans vastly outnumbered their rivals, thanks in part to promotions like additional Facebook advertising and a Greek life event.
Still, scoring remained the Bulldogs’ enemy throughout the first half. They started 3-13 from the field and 0-6 from beyond the arc.
UNI wasn’t shooting much better at 1-10 from three and 42 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes, helping keep the game close. Drake finished the half shooting only 30 percent overall.
Regardless of the struggles, the Bulldogs remained committed to their long-range game. They improved in the second half, 5-16, but still closed with a three-point percentage of just over 20 percent.
Rutter felt his team was appropriately aggressive, but was perhaps a little too eager in taking shots from downtown instead of patiently working for open looks.
“We want to be on the attack. We want our opponent to be on their heels,” Rutter said.
Early in the second half, the Bulldogs showed signs of being able to upset the Panthers, rather than just keep the game competitive.
Junior De’Antae McMurray drained Drake’s first three of the second half to tie the game 31-31, the first tie of the game.
Crowd noise level: deafening.
“It definitely meant a lot to us; a lot of energy in the place,” junior guard C.J. Rivers said. “The fan support was off the charts, something we haven’t seen a lot of.”
It got even louder a minute later when Enevold slipped a pass to River under the basket for an easy lay-in that gave Drake a 33-31 lead, its first of the game.
After committing a shooting foul two UNI possessions later, Rivers doubled down with a technical, giving UNI senior Jeremy Morgan four free throws, of which he made three, and allowing the Panthers to retain possession.
Rivers made up for it moments later by grabbing a rebound that resulted in a Casey Schlatter layup to get Drake back on top 35-34.
Over the course of four minutes the lead would change hands six times as the student-athletes traded baskets.
Foul trouble, sparked by Rivers’ technical, allowed UNI to pull ahead. Drake put UNI into the bonus with more than 14 minutes remaining. The Panthers didn’t commit their sixth foul until there was only 6:34 left on the clock.
The Panthers took advantage, scoring 18 points from the line in the half. Drake was only 7-10 from the charity stripe in the final 20 minutes.
With 6:52 remaining, Northern Iowa was up 51-42 thanks to eight consecutive Bulldog possessions resulting in zero points. A McGlynn tip-in and Arogundade three closed the gap to four, but that was the closest Drake would get.
The Panthers scored seven straight to extend the lead to 11 with less than four minute to play. They held Drake at bay down the stretch to seal the victory.
Poor shooting throughout doomed the Bulldogs. As a team that lives (and dies) by the three — averaging 24.8 three-point attempts per game — finished 6-29 from beyond the arc. Overall shooting wasn’t much better: 38.5 percent.
UNI didn’t shoot incredibly well, finishing at a respectable 47.9 percent from the field, but it was good enough to sink the Bulldogs.
Arogundade, after not scoring in the first half, led the Bulldogs with 15 points. He and Schlatter, who finished with eight points in 14 minutes, were the only Bulldogs to shoot above 50 percent on the day.
Drake is set to host the Wichita State Shockers tonight in the Knapp Center. Wichita State is ranked no. 2 in the MVC, has an 19-4 record and was picked to win the conference this season.
If the Bulldogs can pull off the upset, it would only add to the turnaround story this season has been becoming.