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Evansville Stages Comeback Behind Balentine to Upend No. 23 Northern Iowa

Like the underdog in a title fight, Evansville fought against difficult odds to take down the No. 23 Northern Iowa Panthers in the Missouri Valley opener for both squads.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

There is a certain rhythm to a heavyweight fight, a delicate dance jabs, flurries and moves. More often than not, the destination is an opponent too weary to fight back rather than knocked out on the canvas.

If you are the underdog, the calculus is simple: do just a little bit more than your sparring partner every round. You must impress the judges to earn enough points to win the round, and the favorite already holds all the cards.

When Evansville entered the ring against No. 23 Northern Iowa, they were the underdog, despite this bout taking place on the Aces' home floor. They needed to do just a little bit more at every turn to have the hope to take out the Panthers.

Funny thing about underdogs: they tend to win because they have so little to lose. The Purple Aces left the arena with their heads held high Thursday night, a 52-49 win over a nationally ranked team in hand.

This title fight didn't start the way that the underdog would have liked though. The two squads spent a lot of time circling and trying to penetrate the others defensive. Jab after jab was turned away by both teams as they looked for any advantage that could be obtained.

Northern Iowa had its game plan: use its defense as its best offense. The moves put on by the Panthers were designed to get the matchup moving quickly and to disrupt any plans that Evansville would have.

For a while that was enough. The Panthers generated their momentum with punch after punch into the Evansville gut. Their hands reached out and came away with the ball, and then they moved quickly to get away and capitalize.

Evansville looked stunned, dazed, and the verge of collapse. Down 14 points in the first half, it was going to take a struggle, a surge to get back on top.

But much like the underdogs in the ring, the Purple Aces refused to go down. Northern Iowa committed the fatal mistake. They had the opponent on the ropes and reeling and failed to put them away.

Evansville's plan was simple, put out a flurry of movement designed to distract, and then get as many extra attacks in as possible. It just took a while to be effective.

Flurry, flurry, stick, flurry, flurry: the movement started to work, forcing Northern Iowa into mistakes, or lack of consistency. At the heart of this plan was a series of moves focused on getting Seth Tuttle off the court, a sort of knockdown that would be tough for Northern Iowa to counter.

But more importantly, the plan paid off for scoring points. Like the big heavyweights, Northern Iowa looked to begin to tire. DJ Balentine would get open. DJ Balentine would score. DJ Balentine would get to the line.

It still didn't come easy. Northern Iowa's Nate Buss seemed determined to block everything that came past him, and Balentine had to struggle off the floor, hunched over and dazed in the middle of the comeback.

That alone seemed to indicate that Evansville didn't have enough. But Balentine took his standing 8-count and returned just in time to begin the final flurry of punches that would help bring down the champion.

With four minutes left Balentine put the two free throws through the basket that would give Evansville its first lead of the game. Then the Aces withstood a potential knockdown blow from Tuttle -- a herky jerky twist in the lane that pushed Egidijus Mockevicius to the floor and put Northern Iowa back on top.

But it was clear Tuttle was shaken, along with the rest of the Panthers. That Evansville had been able to climb back, after shooting as poorly as they did in the first half, was too much to comprehend. That they did it with Balentine taking the lion's share of the shots, despite a defense clearly designed to slow him as much as possible and force the Aces to score through some other means. Northern Iowa was punch drunk.

And so it began to unravel: Tuttle pushes Mockevicius on a rebound attempt after the Panthers had stifled Evansville to the end of the shot clock and forced Balentine to take a shot that had no chance of clanging through.

And then it unravels a little more: Mockevicius moves laterally brilliantly and keeps Tuttle from penetrating the middle of the lane. Then Tuttle tries too hard to force the contact and get a foul called. He only managed to get it called on himself.

With 43 seconds left and the game on the line, Tuttle was gone. The most effective weapon in the Northern Iowa arsenal would not be there to help them withstand the next blows by Evansville.

Jaylon Brown gave the finishing shots, four free throws in succession with nary a miss, to end this fight. Jeremy Morgan took one last wild shot to try and extend this match into an extra five minutes, a round to decide it all, but it found no purchase.

The underdog had prevailed, despite the odds, and despite looking as if there was no shot just a few rounds into the match.