By Patrick Engel
Nearly every shot is met with a hand in the face. Passing lanes open for a fleeting moment. Screens are called out so everyone in the building can hear. Switches and double teams come fast, and deflections are frequent.
This is what it’s like to face Northern Iowa’s defense, often an immovable force with no obvious antidote. Loyola discovered as much Saturday afternoon. It’s why the Panthers are inside the top 40 nationally in scoring defense and enter next week’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament as the No. 3 seed.
“They’re just hard-nosed,” Loyola coach Kate Achter said.
Loyola shot 26 percent from the floor in a 64-39 home loss to UNI that locked the team into the No. 9 seed in the MVC tournament. The Ramblers will face No. 8 seed Valparaiso Thursday at 4 p.m. in the first round. They went 0-2 vs. Valpo during the regular season, including a 63-53 home loss on Feb. 11 in which they blew a 12-point second-half lead.
Seniors Jessica Cerda and Katie Salmon scored three and four points, respectively, in their final home game. Senior guard Lee Williams made her first start of the season, playing six minutes. Sophomore guard Tiara Wallace led Loyola with 14 points.
Cerda, who entered Saturday shooting 44 percent from 3-point range in her last nine games, was 1-for-6 from deep and 1-for-15 from the field.
“They sold out to take away Jessica,” Achter said. “And we’re a different team when we don’t make perimeter jump shots.”
The Ramblers (7-22, 5-13 MVC) needed nearly five minutes to score their first basket, which helped UNI (17-12, 13-5) start the game on a 12-0 run. They sliced UNI’s advantage to 18-13 on Cerda’s 3-pointer – it was their only triple of the game – with 9:22 left in the second quarter, but scored only two more points the rest of the half.
Loyola held a pre-game Senior Day ceremony honoring Cerda, Salmon and Williams. Each ran out to center court, hugged Achter, received a bouquet of flowers and posed for pictures. About two hours later, with 1:01 left in the game, all three subbed out for the final time at Gentile to chants of “Let’s go seniors.”
The dud of a finish to the regular season was the first weekend in which the Ramblers went 0-2 since Jan. 19 and 21 road games against Southern Illinois and Missouri State.
Achter, though, wanted to look at a bigger picture. Loyola was 1-1 in each of its last four multi-game weekends, though it did lose to Valpo in a one-game weekend in early February. Before running into two buzz saws this weekend, Loyola was 4-4 in its last eight games.
“We had a chance to win every one of those games,” Achter said. “If you go back through our growing period or back to nonconference, we dropped some games we probably shouldn’t have. When you write that number down combined with the seven wins we already have, then that number pushes to 16 or 17.”