By DRAKE LOHSE
The last time the Bulldogs were in Des Moines, things didn’t end so well. The flame of their four-game win streak was stomped out by the Illinois State Redbirds 69-55.
They squeezed out of Indiana State the following Saturday with a six point win. Only to get rolled over by Loyola in Chicago by 12.
Drake’s dream season found itself on ice. With the strength of the MVC Conference competition this season, the Bulldogs find themselves in an urgent position. Sitting at third in the rankings, the only way to stay in the hunt is to keep winning.
The Panthers of UNI came to town Saturday night. The Knapp was packed. You could see it on the bench, you could sense it in the stands, the Bulldogs wanted this one. Boos were thunder and cheers were ear-splitting. A sign in the student section read “A.J. Green Pays For Tinder,” as a joke. The Bulldogs wanted to make their fans proud by bringing in a big win against another team from Iowa.
But U.N.I.’s fans showed up to. The Panthers made it clear from tipoff that nothing was going to come easy to Drake. And if A.J. Green saw the sign, he only used it to fuel the fire that would carry him to a 19 point performance. The freshman was aggressive on both ends throughout the night.
Early on the Panthers out-bodied the Bulldogs down low. Nick McGlynn and Tramell Murphy missed several gimmes in the paint. At the half the Bulldogs had been out-rebounded 19-13, despite the size advantage. Even with ball movement that would make Popovich proud, Drake failed to consistently capitalize off quality looks.
But D.J. Wilkins was having none of it. The Merrillville, Indiana native nailed two three’s in a row. The Knapp stratosphere rattled. Wilkin’s threes ignited a spark in the heels of the Bulldogs, and they stayed on par with a sharp-shooting UNI offense that hit 55 percent from the field in the first half, 17 lead changes in the first half alone. Drake left for the locker room at the buzzer with a 40-36 advantage.
“We knew it was going to be a physical dogfight down low going in,” senior Nick McGlynn said. “We just had to stay true to ourselves, true to our game plan.”
At halftime Drake University honored the 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Final Four team. Something in the air shifted. Maybe it was the powder blues, or the nostalgia in the air, but the Bulldogs came out smoother in the second half. They were lighter on their feet. Their possessions were longer and their shots more calculated, and they opened the second half on a convincing run.
But neither team broke away for long in Saturday’s contest. Volleys of mid-range strikes from A.J. Green and Wyatt Lohaus kept the Panthers in it. The Panthers shot 40 percent from beyond the arch and took advantage of open look after open look.
Midway through the second half, D.J. Wilkins and Nick McGlynn broke up a pass down low. Wilkins bought it back up the floor, and dumped off to McGlynn, who muscled it in down low for the convincing and-1.
It was Nick McGlynn and D.J. Wilkin’s versus the world Saturday night, and as the game went down to the wire the Bulldogs relied on the senior leadership to hold off a late-game UNI surge. A Brady Ellingson baseline floater stuck a dagger in the Panther’s hopes of victory, and a Nick McGlynn rebound on the ensuing Panther possession twisted it.
The Bulldogs honored their ’69 team with an 83-77 win Saturday night. Seniors D.J. Wilkins (18) and Nick McGlynn (22) combined for 40 of those points. McGlynn also collected his 1,000th career point, just the 25th player in team history to do so.
“Being able to come out and give those guys a show, it was huge for us,” D.J. Wilkins said. “Whenever you have a big crowd, you want to perform for them, and last time we had a big crowd we didn’t play so well, you want to come back fast and give them what they want.”
Drake travels to Carbondale, Illinois on Tuesday for a matchup with the SIU Salukis. The Bulldogs looks to win consecutive games for the first time since their streak ended against Illinois State.