ST. LOUIS, Mo. (March 8) – The book on Northern Iowa, or at least the popular one anyway, is that the Panthers this year are a really good team because of their defense and Seth Tuttle. The second layer of analysis might mention their depth. Little is said of its offense, but let it be known: UNI is pretty darn good on that end, too.
The 11th-ranked Panthers proved as much in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament final, rallying from a huge deficit to defeat Illinois State 69-60 and clinch the Valley’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. UNI won its 30th game this season, clinched its third MVC title in seven years and now should be set for a very nice seed (three? four?) in the NCAAs.
Northern Iowa trailed by 18 points late in the first half and was still down 36-22 at halftime. The Panthers scored 47 points in the second half, though, hitting 13 of 24 shots (54.2%) including six three-pointers, as well as 15 of 17 free throws. In all, UNI outscored Illinois State 54-27 over the last 22+ minutes in an offensive performance that was efficient but also-dare say it-explosive.
Oh, the depth, Tuttle and defense were there, too, and all played a part in the offensive excellence. Five different players scored at least nine points, and that group was led by Tuttle. UNI’s All-American candidate had 15 points and nine rebounds and was the spark plug for his team’s turnaround as the Panthers made a renewed commitment to pounding it in to him in the second half. It was one that paid off immediately for him with six quick points as the Panthers quickly cut into ISU’s lead, but also for others as shooters opened up soon after.
It was not just Tuttle, though, as senior Nate Buss also came off the bench to score 15 points and earn himself a spot on the Arch Madness all-tournament team. And the defense, after some uncharacteristic struggles in the first half, reverted to its dominant form of most of the season, allowing just 33.3% shooting in the second half. Illinois State guard Daishon Knight, who scored 25 in his team’s semifinal upset of Wichita State, scored 11 in the first half but was held to just five in the second half and did not even attempt a field goal until 3:08 remained.
“That was different than just about any game I’ve been a part of,” said Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson. “We had more than our hands full at halftime. I give our guys a lot of credit for sticking to what’s worked for us and getting that ball in to Seth and attacking in transition, doing the things we practiced when it would have been easy to get away from it.”
The turnaround in this one was stunning because, for the first 20 minutes, Illinois State was really, really good. Scary good. The Redbirds shot 51.9% from the field, 6 of 12 from three-point range, and were getting baskets in transition off UNI’s misses. With a win over another nationally ranked team in Wichita State less than 24 hours earlier, bubble teams around the country were sweating because ISU looked for all the world like it was ready to be the Valley’s third team in the NCAA Tournament.
Things weren’t quite as bad as they seemed for the Panthers, though, something Jacobson would note afterwards. UNI shot 7 of 30 in the first half, its worst shooting half of the season, and that total included an inordinate amount of misses on open shots. The misses also allowed Illinois State to get those easier transition scores, but Jacobson felt if his team could chip the lead down to single digits that it could put pressure on the Redbirds.
“I thought in the first half we had gotten some good looks at the basket,” said Jacobson. “Nate was open a couple of times. Paul (Jesperson) was open. We had the ball in to Seth, and he didn’t score it three or four times. I think our play was better than what the score was…we just kept talking about digging in and just talked about getting it under ten as soon as we could and putting a little pressure on them, and the guys were able to do that.”
UNI came in averaging 65.2 points per game, but don’t be misled by that number. The Panthers shoot 48.7% from the field and 40% from three-point range, ranking ninth and eighth in the country in those respective categories. Eight different players have drained at least 15 three-pointers, and after Tuttle’s 15.3 points per game there are seven players averaging between 5.0 and 7.8 points per game. If you like Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings, the Panthers come in 15th nationally in points scored per 100 possessions, too.
This was the 25th edition of Arch Madness, which is firmly entrenched as one of the best conference tournaments anywhere in the country. With 30 wins now, it’s fair to say this UNI team is one of best champions of the MVC’s run in St. Louis.
For Illinois State, this one was an opportunity lost and will sting for a while. An NCAA Tournament bid was just 20 minutes away only to slip away, and fairly quickly.
The Redbirds were superb in the tournament playing from behind, coming back in the second half against Evansville and Wichita State. They were not as good maintaining a big lead against a team that is primed for a run at the Sweet 16, and maybe more.
“We played great in the first half, and they came out and hit us in the mouth,” said Illinois State coach Dan Muller. “We missed some shots around the rim during the stretch, where we could have kept the lead, and just never got going in the second half.
“I don’t think we came out relaxed. I think the mindset coming out of halftime was probably good until they hit us in the mouth and we didn’t finish. Reggie (Lynch) misses a layup, DeVaughn (Akoon-Purcell) misses a couple shots at the rim, Deontae (Hawkins) misses a wide-open three. I think that took the wind out of our sails a little bit, and we didn’t respond.”
Illinois State should get plenty of practice being the hunted next year. Barring heavy personnel losses via transfers-and sadly, that is a disclaimer that must be noted in this sport nowadays-the Redbirds are going to be one of the favorites in the MVC and a chic pick to make their first NCAA Tournament since 1998, when Muller was playing for ISU. The opportunity will be there for Illinois State to show that it can improve on what already has been a very nice season and at 21-11 should be a cinch for a spot in the NIT.
“We just know that this is part of life,” said Lynch. “You can’t take something good, like in the first half, and then give it up. You’ve got to keep your feet on the gas. That’s a lesson that has to be learned, and that’s just basketball.”