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Western Kentucky and Northern Iowa played one of the most entertaining games of college basketball’s opening day

The mid-major powerhouses went head to head and it was the kind of basketball we’ve all been waiting for.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Western Kentucky Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic featured a mid-afternoon clash of two mid-major powerhouses that felt more like an NCAA Tournament game than an opening day matchup. Northern Iowa and Western Kentucky, who were at No. 4 and No. 7 in our preseason Top 25, played to the bitter end, with Western Kentucky holding on for a 93-87 win.

The game featured two players on the Naismith Award preseason watch list in WKU’s center Charles Bassey and UNI’s point guard AJ Green. Both teams were coming off of 2019-20 seasons that left quite a bit of unfinished business.

Western Kentucky entered the C-USA championship as the No. 2 seed looking to challenge North Texas for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Like many conferences, the games were cancelled before they began at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Missouri Valley, Northern Iowa entered Arch Madness as the favorites for the championship, only to be stunned by No. 8 seed Drake in the first game of the tournament back on March 6.

The Panthers had an NIT bid secured as the regular season champions but were hoping to receive an at-large bid — before the all postseason tournaments were canceled that is.

The Hilltoppers and the Panthers both went nearly 260 days without a game of basketball, and kicked their seasons off with a bang Wednesday afternoon.

Western Kentucky entered as the narrow favorites, returning almost their entire roster from the 2019-20 season, with the addition of freshman standout Dayvion McKnight. Coupled with the return of Bassey, who suffered a broken leg last season after only 10 games, Western Kentucky took control of the game from the outset.

Senior Taveion Hollingsworth led the way with 26 points, with McKnight knocking down 21 points in his first college appearance. McKnight was the 2020 Kentucky Mr. Basketball and took home Player of the Game honors.

Northern Iowa has a roster filled with young talent, led by all-conference honorees A.J. Green and Austin Phyfe. They were notably missing senior guard Trae Berhow as a result of COVID-19 protocols. Sophomore Noah Carter filled in, and boy did he deliver — despite it coming in a 93-87 loss to WKU.

In his first career start, Carter set an individual single-game program record with nine made three-pointers. They were crucial points for the Panthers, who also set a program record with the 20 made treys in a single game.

Freshman and 2020 Iowa Mr. Basketball winner Bowen Born and Green helped add to the Panthers’ overall makes from beyond the arc.

The deciding factor ultimately in the game was turnovers. Western Kentucky converted on nearly every single one of UNI’s 17 turnovers. It was compounded by UNI’s inability to get crucial stops. Western Kentucky made the most of its free throws, making 27-of-31 from the charity stripe. UNI only made it to the line 11 times, and converted nine.

While the Wednesday afternoon game wasn’t as clean as either team would like, Western Kentucky and Northern Iowa solidified the preseason hype of being teams to watch as we get deeper into the season.

Western Kentucky will get a chance to continue their win streak against Memphis at 1:30 CT Thanksgiving Day, while UNI hunts for redemption against Saint Mary’s in the consolation bracket at 4:30 p.m. CT.