Although a bid to the NCAA Tournament was already assured, the Northern Iowa Panthers secured their ticket to the Big Dance, in no small part because of star Seth Tuttle's tenacity and Nate Buss's emergence in the second half. The closely fought game was a battle between a conference power and a supremely talented and aggressive challenger.
In the first half Illinois State not only was sinking everything they shot, they were aggressive, attacked the basket at all times, and played smart, hard-nosed defense. From the beginning the Redbirds played with a fearless style and were undaunted in their desire for a tournament bid. The quick and high energy effort forced UNI to take shots they didn't want to, especially because anything that went under the basket was met by either the powerful ISU Center Reggie Lynch or a swarm of defenders. The result was 15 straight missed shots and a 21-8 Redbird lead a quarter through the game.
Even once the Panthers started hitting their shots, the Redbirds just answered back. Three pointers by both Deontae Hawkins and Justin McCloud plus a dunk from Lynch extended the lead to 33-15, which would be their largest lead of the game. Nate Buss and Wes Washpun would whittle down the deficit to bring it to 36-22 at the half.
Coming out of the locker room there was no doubt that Northern Iowa had it in them to come back, but it was perhaps a surprise that the entire game flipped from the very beginning. The Panthers possess the best defense in the Missouri Valley, and it locked down from the start to put the game back on track with a 12-1 UNI lead, with Tuttle accounting for half of those points.
Sharp shooting and stalwart defense on the part of the Panthers seemed to fluster the Redbirds, exposing their greatest weakness. Illinois State possesses great talent, but lacked consistency all season. The aggressiveness and smart off-the-ball action went by the wayside and was replaced by frantic play and disjointed movement.
With their 18 point lead reduced to 1 point, Illinois State was moving down the court when Nate Buss stole the ball and put it up for the first Panther lead of the game at 41-40. Had ISU still been composed it perhaps could have taken the lead back, but a poor offensive attempt brought the ball back to UNI's side of the court where Jeremy Morgan sailed a dagger to make the lead 4, followed by a Wes Washpun layup, foul, and free throw.
All of a sudden the 14 point deficit was a 7 point lead.
Illinois State would regain its previous aggressive play, attacking the basket and scoring quickly to make it close at 47-44. Shortly after a missed dunk by DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and a missed three pointer on the other side, Hawkins made one from beyond the arc to tie it up, but back-to-back threes by Buss and Matt Bohannon put the Panther lead right back at 6 - a lead they wouldn't give up. The Redbirds may have got back into their rhythm, but the Panthers were not going to relent.
The Redbirds continued to fight back, but forced shots and missed free throws would leave them lacking when the buzzer sounded. The Panthers were able to enjoy an auto-bid into the tournament, and perhaps bought themselves a stronger seed.