CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Roman Penn’s 3-pointer put Drake in exclusive company on Saturday at the McLeod Center.
It gave the Bulldogs a 68-63 lead on Northern Iowa’s home floor with 5:28 remaining. It’s the only time this year a road team has led by two possessions in the final 6 minutes at McLeod. It was just the second time this season the Panthers trailed at all, this late, at home. Way back on Nov. 16, Northern Colorado scored on the first possession of overtime at UNI — the only other time this has occurred in Cedar Falls, Iowa (the Panthers still won the game, 77-72).
So for this, and several other reasons (like the fact that Drake was in the midst of a 10-2 run), Bulldogs coach Darian DeVries felt “good” about his team’s chances at UNI in the moment.
AJ Green was having none of it.
Over the next two minutes, Green — the Panthers’ 6-foot-4 sophomore guard — willed his team back in front, scoring eight straight points, the last three coming on a step-back jumper from behind the arc with a hand in his face. Upon the go-ahead bucket, Green pantomimed shooting a bow and arrow, and DeVries found himself in the midst of another rare moment — watching the typically stoic Green in the throes of an emotional display.
Three minutes later, behind Green’s 34-point outburst, the Bulldogs became UNI’s 13th straight victim at McLeod, an 83-73 defeat that kept the Panthers unblemished at home.
“We’re in a good spot right there and AJ took over the game,” DeVries said. “That second half, he was as good as it gets.”
Through 24 games, UNI is on a historic path. At 21-3, 10-2 in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Panthers find themselves in sole possession of first place in the league. They’re the Valley’s highest scoring team at 77 points per contest, putting them on pace for their highest scoring average since 1995-96 (the Eldon Miller days). They’re also holding teams to 64.9 points per game, third lowest in the league.
Green’s play on Saturday puts all of it in better context. His 34 points were one off his career-high and six off the single-game school record. His six 3-pointers also were one short of his career-best and two behind the school mark. His efforts earned him his fourth career MVC Player of the Week award on Monday.
At 20 points per game, Green leads the MVC. And if he keeps all of this up, he’ll be within reach of Randy Blocker’s single-season scoring record (645 points), set 26 years ago, as well as shattering Marc Sonnen’s 2013 season record for 3-pointers (96). He’s also 82 makes shy of tying the Panthers’ single-season field goals record (240), which is now 31 years old.
Already this year, Green set the Panthers’ record for most consecutive free throws (44), demolishing the previous standard by 12. His percentage from the charity stripe this year (.921) is well ahead of the best season mark in school history (.874).
All told, Green’s season is unlike any that’s taken place at Northern Iowa.
“His work ethic has allowed him to play in the way that he has played for us,” said Panthers coach Ben Jacobson.
Green is 93 points away from passing his coach for the eighth-highest scoring season in the UNI books with six games left in the regular season. When asked if there’s a shot he doesn’t want Green to take, Jacobson said the guard has the greenlight to let it fly “whenever, wherever, however.”
“I don’t mean to kid about that,” Jacobson said. “I say that because his teammates are 100 percent OK with him shooting it whenever, wherever, however. That’s the most important thing. He’s earned their trust.”
Cedar Falls has been treated to Green’s stellar play for quite a while. The son of Panthers assistant Kyle Green, AJ was a four-year starter at Cedar Falls High who dreamed of wearing Panther purple and guided the Tigers to an Iowa Class 4A state championship his senior year.
Saturday’s game was reminiscent of his prowess on the state tournament floor — where he averaged almost 26 points on his way to all-tournament team captain honors. No matter the space between shooter and defender, Green hit the shots, even then.
“I wouldn’t say it’s luck, either,” said teammate Trae Berhow, Northern Iowa’s second leading scorer. “During practices, we’re used to seeing this. AJ hits all these shots during practice, so during the games, we’re used to seeing that, but it’s fun to see.”
Five more wins for the Panthers would mean their first regular-season MVC title since the 2009-10 team. UNI can attest that perhaps nobody’s more driven for those Ws than Green.
“(Teammates) know he’s not going to show emotion. Very rarely does he show emotion,” Jacobson said. “But they know. They know he’s burning inside all the time.”