CEDAR FALLS — AJ Green typically keeps his emotions closer to his vest than wearing them on his sleeves, but Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson says his teammates realizes that there’s always a fire burning within their sophomore point guard.
Green couldn’t help but cut loose while putting together a special 21-point the second half to lead UNI to a thrilling 83-73 win over Drake in front of 6,497 fans that filled the McLeod Center Saturday afternoon.
The largest crowd to attend a basketball game in his hometown of Cedar Falls since UNI’s memorable win over North Carolina on Nov. 21, 2015, inspired Green to outwardly embrace his shot-making display.
Green emphatically gestured towards the fans after an acrobatic 3-pointer through contact led to a timely four-point play. He later brought out his bow-and-arrow celebration from high school, and also celebrated a ridiculous step-back, go-ahead 3-pointer in front the student section during a late 13-0 run that gave the Panthers the lead for good.
“Coach says you’ve got to get loose and have fun out there, show some emotion,” said Green who finished one shy of his career high with 34 points on 12 of 21 shooting, including six 3-pointers. “The fans love that. You can’t help it after everyone is on their feet cheering loud like that. It gets to you and you’ve got to enjoy it.”
It took a special performance by Green to overcome a determined Drake team (16-9, 6-6 Missouri Valley) that led throughout the majority of this game and had a timely answer for all but UNI’s final run.
Seven-foot center Liam Robbins, a player Jacobson considers one of the nation’s most improved, led Drake with 17 points. Guards D.J. Wilkins and Anthony Murphy finished with 16 and 15 points, respectively, while point guard Roman Penn was tough off the drive with 12 points.
The Bulldogs shot 64% to take a four-point halftime lead and finished the game 50% from the field with nine 3-pointers.
“We dug in and gave ourselves a better chance in the second half with our defense, but they were awfully determined,” Jacobson said. “There were possessions where it just didn’t matter.”
Green, supported by Trae Berhow’s 18 points and Spencer Haldeman’s 12, helped UNI (21-3, 10-2) outscore the Bulldogs with 48 second-half points.
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“There were times in the second half where I found myself enjoying what was going on,” Jacobson said. “To say Drake played great would probably do them an injustice. They’ve got a really good team. ... We hung in there when we had to and AJ, that was special. That was really, really special.”
Green shot 8-for-11 from the field and made four of five 3-point attempts over the final 20 minutes as he was locked into a zone few basketball players can ever find.
“It’s just hooping really,” Green said. “You’ve just got to trust all the work you’ve put in and just go out there and do what you do when no one is in the gym and you’re just there by yourself.”
Drake had built a five-point lead four minutes into the second half before Green sparked UNI’s first of multiple responses with his four-point play.
Green eventually put the Panthers up four, 54-50, with a pull-up jumper and a difficult step-back 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer. Tywhon Pickford then went over the top of Robbins, one of the nation’s top shot blockers, for an emphatic dunk off a Haldeman bounce pass that sent the McLeod Center decibel level through the roof as UNI led, 59-56.
Drake responded with a timely 8-0 run capped by a traditional three-point play from Anthony Murphy to take a 66-61 lead with 6:56 remaining.
Green, however, refused to fade. He opened a game-changing 13-0 run with a step-back 3-pointer, followed by a go-ahead bank off the drive and another 3-pointer. Haldeman later worked the clock down and hit a 3-pointer off a crossover dribble to cap the surge as UNI led 76-68 with 1:36 to play and continued to hit shots down the stretch.
“AJ is a good player for a reason,” Drake coach Darian DeVries said. “He made some really tough shots tonight and our guys I thought they really competed trying to slow him down, but he was just a little better than we were. That second half he was as good as it gets.
“I thought we played with really good composure. We moved the ball and we didn’t settle. We went deep in the clock sometimes to find the shot that we wanted. It was just hard to keep up. (Green’s) threes for twos, it wasn’t adding up on the scoreboard very well.”
Inspired by playing in front of the type of crowd he first witnessed following the 2009-10 UNI Sweet 16 team that was honored during the first half, Green has continued to etch his own name into Panther lore.
“I think ever since probably that 2010 team and Tut’s (Seth Tuttle) team for sure when they were getting sold out, that’s when I knew I want to be out there one day playing in front of a crowd like this,” Green said. “The fans showed out tonight. It was amazing.
“It’s a family here. That’s our culture, so them (the 2010 team) being back, we definitely had to get a win for them because they’ve done so much for this program.”