Wichita State has earned much of the recognition in the Missouri Valley Conference this year, and deservedly so, but let it not be forgotten that Northern Iowa is the defending champion of Arch Madness. And there are plenty of veterans still around from that team who know how to get the job done again.
The fourth-seeded Panthers issued a reminder on Friday in St. Louis of just how dangerous they are. Not in blowout fashion, mind you-there has been no such thing the first two days of Arch Madness this year-but with a composed, confident effort in a 66-60 win over Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals Friday.
UNI never trailed and watched the No. 5 seed Salukis fight back from 12 points down in the second half to tie the game, the second time with a minute left in the game. The Panthers made winning plays down the stretch, though, relying again on one of the game’s best closers in Wes Washpun and then hitting six straight free throws to close it out and move on to a highly anticipated semifinal matchup with Wichita State on Saturday.
Washpun fought through foul trouble to score nine of his 11 points in the second half, including a gutsy drive for a layup with 47 seconds left that put Northern Iowa ahead for good. He gashed Iowa State for 28 points earlier this year with similar moves and has been a leader on the team all season, growing into the role in his three years at UNI after the Cedar Rapids native transferred back closer to home from Tennessee.
“He’s had such a phenomenal season,” said UNI coach Ben Jacobson. “Through the ups and downs, and the ups and downs haven’t necessarily been-when it comes to basketball, (leadership) hasn’t necessarily been Wes’ cup of tea, if you will, but it is now. Man, he has taken on so much leadership and so much responsibility for our team.
“To be in the situation we were today, where he was playing great and then got his third and got his fourth and had to sit, you know, I don’t know if two years ago that would have been really hard for him, and right now he is such a tremendous leader for our team. Man, I’ll tell you, he’s had an unbelievable year.”
Washpun also was the primary defender on outstanding SIU guard Anthony Beane, and the extremely bouncy 6-foot-1 guard blocked a pair of three-point attempts by Beane, including one when the score was tied with two minutes left. He played aggressively even with four fouls for the final 5 1/2 minutes, and Waspun and teammate Jeremy Morgan made Beane work for all 17 of his points.
“I had to keep my aggression up for the sake of the team,” said Washpun. “And Beane is a heck of a player. If you’re not aggressive guarding him, then he’s liable to go on a 13-0, 14-0 run by himself. You have to stay aggressive guarding a guy like that.
On blocking the jumpers from a standing start: “I was reading and reacting to what he was doing. He jumps pretty high on his jump shots, and I jump fairly high myself,” said Washpun modestly, in one of the understatements of the year. “So I tried to challenge it as best I could, and I ended up coming up with a few blocks.”
Northern Iowa won in a style reminiscent of a year ago, with cool efficiency and tough defense. The Panthers took just 44 shots, but made 21 of them (47.7%) and committed 11 turnovers, seven less than the Salukis. Playing more of the pack line defense that the Panthers were so good at last year, UNI gave a clinic on how to help and recover in the post, holding SIU to 3 of 18 shooting from three-point range.
It’s safe to say Northern Iowa has recovered from early-season inconsistencies and in particular a midseason slide that included eight losses in 11 games and plundered any chances of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid for a squad that also has wins over Iowa State, North Carolina and on the road at Wichita State. In fact, the team is more than fine with acknowledging that midseason stretch has helped prepare the Panthers for where they are now.
“Yeah, you know, that experience was good for us,” said Morgan, who also was huge with 18 points and is developing into another Arch Madness money player. “We had a tough stretch there in the middle of the season, and we really drew closer together during that time. Coach kept telling us not to lay down, just fight through it. Just keep fighting through it. So that experience has helped us a lot.”
“You know, I think we’re just playing at a level right now, we learned our lesson going through that period of time,” said Jacobson. “It was a couple of things. We lacked a little confidence. We didn’t have all of our guys playing at the level they’re playing at now, and we hadn’t-this team hadn’t necessarily fought through some things. And now all of a those things are in place, if you will.”
“Our confidence is good. As we’ve talked about, our entire lineup is playing well. And these guys had to go through that stretch, and they found their way out of it. So now when we get into a game like that, it doesn’t-for them, in their mind, it doesn’t compare to going through 2 1/2 weeks where we couldn’t do too much right. They’ve learned and taught themselves how to fight through a stretch.”
The stage is now set for what could be an Arch Madness classic in the semifinals, with Northern Iowa squaring off with Wichita State for the third time this year. The teams split two games this year with both winning on the others’ home court, and it was just a year ago when these two were meeting as both top 15 teams nationally.
One area where UNI will need to be better is on the boards. The Salukis hammered the Panthers to the tune of 39-24 on the glass, including 14 offensive rebounds.
“We’re going to have to do better,” said Jacobson. “At Wichita State, I don’t remember how many it was, it might have been 14 rebounds at Wichita State. (It actually was even worse-a 21-rebound margin). We’re going to have to find a better way to rebound the basketball. There’s no two ways about it. We’ll watch the film. Obviously, we can’t go to the practice floor with the quick turnaround, so it’s going to have to be in film and taking a look. Boy, we’re going to have to come tomorrow, and we’re going to have to find a way.”
Many anticipated the Panthers and Shockers meeting in the title game a year ago, but Illinois State crashed that party in knocking off WSU in the semifinals. One year later and one round earlier, that matchup in St. Louis is here.