Fresh off their upset of the Wichita State Shockers, the Northern Iowa Panthers had their sights set on a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. With wins over the likes of the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Iowa State Cyclones, the Panthers would have been in the conversation for an at-large bid if it weren’t for a dismal start to conference play.
The only real chance the Panthers had to make the Big Dance was to win the conference tournament and receive the automatic bid into the field of 68.
There was only one problem. The Evansville Purple Aces had the same goal in mind, and were looking to end the Panthers’ run to the title.
Northern Iowa swept the season series between the two by a combined five points, so the conference finale was expected to be the same. Early on, it looked as though the Panthers were going to run away with the title, as Evansville couldn’t buy a basket in the opening half
However, the Purple Aces fought all the way back in the second stanza, and it was only fitting that the game come right down to the final buzzer.
Northern Iowa had the final possession, and got the ball into the hands of Wes Washpun. Instead of calling a timeout, Head Coach Ben Jacobson let things play out. Washpun got to a spot he liked, just above the foul line, and put up a jumper with a hand right in his face.
It hit the back of the rim and bounced straight up. The buzzer went, and the ball fell through the net. The Northern Iowa Panthers were off to the NCAA Tournament once again, this time as a result of some late-game heroics and a 56-54 win over Evansville.
Sunday night was a tale of two halves for both teams. The first half was all about the Panthers, while the second was all about the Purple Aces.
Both teams struggled out of the gate, as they combined for 10 total points over the first 6-plus minutes. Klint Carlson pushed the Panthers ahead, 7-5, with a jumper at the 13:01 mark of the opening half.
Carlson’s jumper kicked off a 16-1 run that put the Panthers ahead by 15, at 21-6. Washpun capped off the run with a jumper of his own.
D.J. Balentine completed a three point play after being fouled to put a stop to the Panthers’ run. However, Northern Iowa would push their lead to 17 on a three from Carlson with 5:52 to play, at 26-9.
Evansville would cut the deficit down to 14 heading into the locker room, but things didn’t look pretty for the Purple Aces. They needed to find ways to get good looks at the basket in the second half, or the Panthers were going to run away with the conference title.
In the early parts of the second half, it looked as though the Purple Aces weren’t going to make a comeback. Jaylon Brown missed a layup, then Egidijus Mockevicius missed a pair of free throws, all in the first 15 seconds of the half. To make matters worse, Jeremy Morgan connected on a three pointer on the Panthers’ first shot of the half to push the lead to 17.
However, Evansville continued to fight, and ere able to cut the deficit down to single digits with plenty of time on the clock. Balentine hit a three pointer with 12:30 to play, and Brown followed that up with a layup to cut the deficit to 6, at 40-34.
They continued to fight, and cut the deficit down to just 2 points on another three ball from Brown. Washpun hit a pair of free throws to push the lead back to 4, but the Purple Aces had the momentum in their corner.
Brown and Balentine combined to score five quick points, and the Purple Aces took a 48-47 lead, their first since the very early moments of the first half. That started a back-and-forth final few minutes that saw the game tied as the final buzzer approached.
After Balentine hit a layup with 25 seconds left on the clock to tie the game at 54-all, the Panthers had one final chance to come away with the win.
Northern Iowa had timeouts to use, but chose not to take one and to let the game play out. The ball found its way into the hands of Washpun, and the Panthers’ leader seized the moment.
One-on-one with Balentine, Washpun got to a spot on the floor that he liked, which was just above the foul line. With the clock ticking down to the final seconds, Washpun went up for a jumper and got it off with a hand of Balentine right in his face.
The ball hit the back of the rim and bounced straight in the air. As the buzzer sounded, the ball fell through the basket, and the Northern Iowa fans and players alike erupted.
Northern Iowa was off to its second straight NCAA Tournament with a 56-54 victory over Evansville.
Big time players show up in big time games, and Wes Washpun did just that for the Northern Iowa Panthers on Sunday night. He scored a team-high 18 points, on 6-of-12 shooting, and added 5 rebounds and 3 assists.
Klint Carlson came off the bench to chip in with 17 points, while Jeremy Morgan added 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 blocks.
D.J. Balentine found his groove in the second half, but it was too little, too late for the Evansville Purple Aces. Balentine scored a game-high 20 points, going 8-of-18 from the field and just 1-of-4 from three point range.
Jaylon Brown added 18 points, while Egidijus Mockevicius was held to just 6 points, but he did pull down 19 rebounds.
Make it back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the Northern Iowa Panthers (22-12, 11-7). Things looked bleak at he start of conference play, but they are playing their best basketball at just the right time, and they could put a scare into a top seed in the opening round of the Big Dance.
The loss isn’t the ending that the Evansville Purple Aces (25-9, 12-6) had in mind. Their second half comeback fell just short, and Lady Luck wasn’t on their side. The Purple Aces are hoping for a berth into the NIT, but will find themselves in a post-season event, without question.