CEDAR FALLS — AJ Green is becoming quite the showman during his encore season with the University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball team.
Knowing he had an audience on its feet to begin the second act of Wednesday night’s game against Valparaiso, Green delivered another signature performance and led UNI to a thrilling 88-78 come-from-behind victory in front of a McLeod Center crowd of 4,057.
“Having that energy from the crowd, that’s what it’s all about,” Green said after knocking down 9 of 16 shots — including five 3-pointers and all six free throws — for a game-high 29 points. “We love the fans coming to pack the McLeod just like they did tonight. We need that every night. They help us for sure.”
UNI coach Ben Jacobson could sense Green was determined to help the Panthers (15-2, 4-1 Missouri Valley Conference) improve to 10-0 on their turf prior to tip and when he spoke during timeouts.
Valparaiso (9-9, 2-3) scored 16 points off 10 UNI first-half turnovers and flipped an early 11-point deficit into an 11-point lead. The Crusaders took control with a 19-2 run over an eight-minute stretch of the first half before Spencer Haldeman hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut UNI’s deficit to a manageable 42-36 margin at intermission.
Then Green took over.
Sidestepping, back-stepping and pulling up on the perimeter, Green scored 10 points and assisted on five more when UNI opened the first four minutes of the second half on a 17-0 run. He then added a 3-pointer for good measure after Valpo’s Ben Krikke hit one his team’s 10 treys to finally get Crusaders on the second-half scoreboard.
“Protecting home court was big for him (Green),” Jacobson said. “I think you could feel that starting the second half.
“The crowd was (standing) up for a long time because Valpo didn’t score, and it gave our crowd a chance to stay with it. During that stretch AJ had the ball in his hands a bunch and made plays, made shots. Tonight it got to the point where, ‘Man, I don’t want to lose at home. We’re going to protect our home court.’”
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Valpo fought back with a talented sophomore guard of its own. Javon Freeman-Liberty scored 28 points on 12 of 24 shooting, while also using his instincts to disrupt action.
The Crusaders cut an 11-point, second-half deficit to one when Mileek McMillan’s second 3-pointer capped a stretch in which Valpo hit 6 of 7 shots. Green answered with a long step-back two and responded again by getting to the free throw line after the Crusaders pulled back within one the ensuing possession.
Haldeman then hit a long, contested 3-pointer as part of his 3-for-4 effort from deep to double the lead as UNI found late separation.
UNI finished the game 12 of 22 from distance and shot 57.7% from the field with 52 second-half points. Senior Isaiah Brown moved over to the point guard role for a significant stretch and finished with 16 points, a career-high six assists, two steals and a block. Center Austin Phyfe added 15 points and eight rebounds.
Brown helped the Panthers seal the victory with a drive and dish to Trae Berhow for a 3-pointer before taking the ball to the rim and finishing through contact for a late nine-point advantage.
“I’ve been putting a lot more work with my handle and being more aggressive and strong with the ball,” Brown said. “Obviously a lot of teams are putting their best defender on AJ so that leaves somebody that I think I should be able to beat on me. I should be able to get downhill and create for myself and others.”
Knowing Brown has invested four-to-five intense individual workouts a week to become more confident with the ball, Jacobson had no hesitation in letting his senior take over the point for several key possessions.
“Had he not been working hard the last two months, I don’t know if I would have made that shift there in the second half,” Jacobson said. “It felt like the best way to play it was to get him in space and see if we could get him downhill. I’ve got a lot of confidence in him right now.”
As for Green's performance, UNI’s coach admitted there are times within games when he finds himself enjoying and appreciating the sophomore's ability to take over alongside the fans.
“It’s a unique deal,” Jacobson said. “He works so hard it. I’m not surprised by any of it because of how hard he works, but I hope our fans and other people that are watching us play right now appreciate it and that they do enjoy it.”