ST. LOUIS, Mo. - Kwadzo Ahelegbe ended the day with a cut above his right eye.

Panthers like Lucas O'Rear got irritated by the chippy, physical play down low.

Both coaches often gave referees an earful.

This, undoubtedly, was NCAA Tournament-caliber intensity.

And, when the dust settled, Northern Iowa was battered but unbowed.

With its hard-fought, 67-52 triumph over Wichita State Sunday, UNI became the first No. 1 seed to repeat as the Missouri Valley Conference tournament champion since Illinois State in 1997-98.

After sticking and moving all day against Wichita State, the Panthers (28-4) earned a guaranteed invite to dance in the NCAA Tournament.

"It was a really physical game," noted big man Jordan Eglseder. "But we like it that way."

UNI, which has now won six straight games in "Arch Madness," finished with its fewest rebounds (27) in six games on Sunday.

But the Panthers got 25 points from their bench, made 10 of 20 3-point attempts and scored 18 points off Shocker turnovers.

"I really like how we played here," said coach Ben Jacobson after a three-game run during which his club limited foes to an average of 44 points per contest. "I thought we really played well - we knew we had to. The guys are confident.

"And there's a lot of motivation still," the fourth-year coach noted, in reference to the NCAA Tournament that starts March 18-19.

The purple and gold held the MVC's postseason trophy high thanks to Kwadzo Ahelegbe's game-high 24 points and 23 combined points from post players Jake Koch and Eglseder. The win was UNI's third double-digit triumph of the weekend.

"Very impressed. I thought (the Panthers) showed the heart of a champion," said Pete Gillen, the former Virginia and Providence coach who served as Sunday's radio analyst for Westwood One.

"They dug down deep. I think they're going to be a tough out (in the NCAA Tournament)," Gillen added, predicting that UNI will be seeded seventh or eighth on Selection Sunday.

UNI put its defense on display all week in St. Louis. The Panthers, ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (54.4 points per game allowed), held Wichita State to 23.1 percent shooting in Sunday's second half. The MVC champions also held Shocker star Toure Murry to just six points - barely half his per-game average.

"It's always defense, defense, defense; we preach it all the time," explained Jake Koch. "Boxing out, rotations, it all seems to be working well for us this year."

"We turned the ball over, we settled for too many jump shots," sighed Shocker coach Gregg Marshall. "But Northern Iowa, they'll win games in the NCAA Tournament."

Wichita State, seeking its first MVC Tournament title since 1987, benefitted early from UNI's lethargy. The Panthers, winners in six of their last seven games, started sluggish by missing eight of their first nine field-goal attempts.

However, reserves like Jake Koch - who scored eight of his eventual 13 points in the first half - promptly spurred a 9-2 UNI scoring run.

Wichita State (25-9) committed nine turnovers in the first 20 minutes, but buried six of 12 3-point attempts, including a long ball from guard Demetric Williams just before the halftime horn. The Shockers also outrebounded the Panthers, 24-10, in the opening stanza and owned a 31-28 lead at the intermission because of it.

However, a 3-point flurry helped propel UNI on a 23-3 run and, eventually, to victory. First, Jake Koch buried a trey from the top of the key with 9:43 remaining. The resulting crowd noise made it sound like a McLeod Center home game.

Less than four minutes later, UNI's Johnny Moran sank a 3 from the right wing before pumping his fist emphatically ... which brought Panther backers to their feet and dropped Wichita State to the canvas.

The late-game dominance was fitting for a Panther squad that essentially led the Valley from pole to pole this winter.

"It's huge," noted Eglseder. "To be able to do that, with all the targets on our back this year ... we're really proud.'

UNI set a school single-season record for wins. That tally sits at 28 and counting, with four of those wins coming against teams in the top 50 of the RPI.

"It's the high point of a season (with lots of) high points to it," said athletic director Troy Dannen. "This whole season has just been historic, because we've accomplished things, competitively, that we've never done in the history of Northern Iowa."

 

(5) comments

John14541
John14541

Congratulations to the Panthers and Coaching Staff for such a terrific season!!! Keep up the great floor play in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Again, Congratulations!!!

75unigrad
75unigrad

Phase I (regular season) completed with mostly outstanding marks.
Phase II (MVC tourney) completed with all outstanding marks.
Next up, Phase III. Here's hoping for a 6 seed so the Panthers don't have to face a #1 or #2 before the Sweet Sixteen. A 30(plus)-win season would be a just reward for this year's team.

Congrats!!

reader54
reader54

What an excellent job Coach J has done with this group of men!!! This is not only great for UNI, but the entire Cedar Valley along with the state!!!
Great season, now let's plan on having a LONG dance in the NCAA Tourney!!!!

Intheno
Intheno

Congratulations to the entire UNI BB team and "family"! Their success started 4 years ago when AD Rick Hartzell hired Ben Jacobsen and Ben, in turn, continued building the program Mac started, instead of just building a team. So many new Cedar Valley fans have jumped on the Panther bandwagon this year, and that's great. Credit goes to the entire university. Can't wait to see where I'll be spending part on my Spring break!!

class of 993
class of 993

Having just returned home from the mvc tourney I am proud to be a meber of Panther Nation. A huge congrats go out to the coaches and players for a grea tshowing on the floor. Just as important though is the way they conducted themselves as young men. The coaches, players and the HUGE fan base were classy at all times and represented UNI and the Cedar Valley well. I am darn proud of to be a member of Panther Nation today. Even if we dont go anywhere in the NCAA tourney all of these men and coaches are champions in more than one way. Congrats to the Cats!!!!

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