December 27, 2014

Northern Iowa is looking to head into the Missouri Valley Conference season with more momentum and another home win.

The No. 23 Panthers try to extend their home win streak to nine games Sunday when they face a South Dakota State team that enters off some much-needed rest.

Northern Iowa (10-1) moved back into the AP Top 25 after last Saturday's impressive 56-44 win over Iowa. The Panthers are off to their best start since beginning 16-1 in 2009-10.

They fell out of the rankings following a 93-87 double-overtime loss at VCU on Dec. 13. One week later, the Panthers rallied from a six-point halftime deficit by limiting the Hawkeyes to 3-of-24 shooting the rest of the way, with all six of their blocks coming after halftime.

''Our guys found a second level of defense in the second half,'' coach Ben Jacobson said. ''Our defense is much better than it was a year ago.''

Northern Iowa has the MVC's best defense, allowing opponents to average 57.6 points and shoot 39.0 percent. Last season, its opponents averaged 69.3 points and shot 44.2 percent.

The Panthers won with a minimal contribution from leading scorer Seth Tuttle, who scored nine points - 5.3 below his average. Paul Jesperson led a strong effort by the bench with 10 points for a unit that outscored Iowa's reserves, 28-12.

''I think we just found a rhythm,'' Tuttle said. ''We talked at halftime about what we had to do. We started to push it in the second half and be more aggressive.''

That production from the reserves isn't anything new. The Panthers' bench averages 32.0 points - one of the nation's best marks - and the reserves are shooting 50.4 percent.

Jesperson has reached double digits five times in his first season with Northern Iowa after transferring from another defensive-minded program in Virginia. He earned MVC newcomer of the week honors for his last effort.

South Dakota State (9-4) had led or been tied in the second half of every game this season before its seven-game win streak ended in Tuesday's 80-66 loss at No. 14 Utah. The Jackrabbits were enjoying their longest run since winning eight straight Jan. 10-Feb. 7, 2013.

A poor effort wasn't entirely unexpected since South Dakota State played for the fourth time in six days after winning on three straight days Dec. 18-20 to capture the World Vision Classic held at Utah State.

''Our effort wasn't very good," coach Scott Nagy said. "Our guys just looked gassed from the start.''

The Jackrabbits had not shot below 40 percent all season before doing so in each of the last four games, a stretch in which it is 37.7 percent from the field.

South Dakota State is the opponent Northern Iowa has faced the second-most times in history - only Morningside played the Panthers more. The Jackrabbits lead the all-time series 45-39, though they lost the last meeting 72-55 on Dec. 21, 2008.

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