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Wichita State Bests Northern Iowa for Missouri Valley Title in Fantastic Rematch

Wichita State would not allow Northern Iowa to come into its house and take away the Missouri Valley title, and showed why the Shockers should still be feared in March.

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

What if I told you that the best basketball in the Midwest wasn't played in the Big 12 or the Big Ten? What if I told you that March had an extra day this year, February 28?

What if I told you that the only thing better than a second Northern Iowa vs. Wichita State matchup would be a third one, on a neutral court, in Saint Louis?

This is a story ready-made for a 30 for 30 documentary, a story filled with strong protagonists. They will grab you, hold on and won't let go for the length of a two-hour feature film.

This is Northern Iowa and Wichita State. This is the rivalry.

Let's be clear: a matchup like this doesn't come along anymore. You don't get teams this hungry in the power conferences. You don't get players battling for a win that would just give them a conference title. You don't get this madness.

This is our realm. This is where we live. This is where March lives every day, even if the calendar hasn't been stubborn enough to flip over to that month just yet.

We are living in full March mode now, having just watched Wichita State defend its home floor against the upstart Panthers. The trio of Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, would not be denied, even if the script for the sequel looked like it was going to follow that of the original feature, released at the end of January.

Despite foul trouble inside, despite a hungry Northern Iowa team that so desperately wanted to stop the Shockers' title dreams and home winning streak, this Wichita State team came to play.

This is a credit to not only the players on the floor, but the raucous crowd that packed Koch Arena for the 74-60 win. They camped in the cold and snow; they woke up early for College Gameday. They caught their breath and then let it all loose on the unsuspecting Panthers for two straight hours.

You don't go to war with the Shockers without losing your ear drums at the hands of the black and gold clad faithful in the Roundhouse.

They had plenty to cheer for as Fred Van Vleet made his case for why he should be considered the best player in the conference. He hit timely threes; he had amazing passes that found their marks true. He caused his opponents to just fall over themselves trying to determine how to stop him.

It turned out the only thing that could stop him were his own two feet, ones that slid from beneath him late in the second half and caused him to fall to the floor and knock his head against the hardwood. Despite what will likely be a minor concussion, Van Vleet wanted to go back into the game, one that was already won, so that he could celebrate the final minutes with his teammates on the floor, where he is as much of a coach as Gregg Marshall is on the sidelines.

But this game wasn't just about the hallowed trio for the Shockers. This was a testament to the struggles that Wichita State has gone through trying to work its new contributors into the rotation this season. Where in other games the inside help for Darius Carter was overwhelmed as soon as they stepped over the sideline, today they managed to make things work just well enough to let the stars do what they do best: win.

Bush Wamukota took on the task of guarding Van Vleet's leading contender for MVC Player of the Year honors, Seth Tuttle, without hesitation. He kept Tuttle away from the boards and made sure that the Northern Iowa star didn't have his usual run of the lane inside. Tuttle still finished with a statsheet stuffed with 16 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but this wasn't the dominating performance he turned in Cedar Falls.

Maybe the biggest foil for the Panthers was Evan Wessel, who got loose for 11 points, including three 3-pointers that all seemed to come with wide-open looks. The typically stingy defense of the Panthers somehow left him open and gave up the most points since Northern Iowa took a double-overtime loss against VCU back in December.

Like most sequels, this game took on a different tone from the start, as Wichita State showed Northern Iowa it was not going to just back down and let the Panthers take the Missouri Valley title. Unlike last time, the Shockers were the aggressor on both ends of the ball, and really controlled the offensive glass against Northern Iowa.

In the first meeting, Wichita State grabbed 25 percent of the offensive boards. Today it was closer to 40 percent. The extra long possessions wore down the Northern Iowa defense, and let the Shockers hit those shots that didn't fall the first time.

It was 46 percent from 3-point range Saturday, not the 5-for-24 performance that Wichita State limped to at Northern Iowa.

This was a different team, one that played more like the undefeated team from last season than in any other game this year. This is the team that fans expect to see in Wichita, and one that didn't disappoint its faithful Saturday afternoon.

Northern Iowa will want another chance, and soon. The Panthers found themselves down 18 in the second half, and managed to cut the lead down to just four before Wessel went off for his barrage of 3-pointers. They showed resolve that few teams in Koch Arena can seem to muster against the wall of sound that are the Shockers fans, and the defensive front that Wichita State can bring.

There will be a lingering bad taste in their mouths, knowing that they let the conference title slip away from them, although it probably happened on New Year's Day when Evansville tripped up the freshly ranked Panthers. That was before 16 wins in a row. That was before this Northern Iowa team had rounded into one of the best 10 in the country, a place they still deserve to be considered for, along with the squad that bested them Saturday.

Everyone is hoping that there will be a final chapter in this unfinished trilogy, one that will take place in Saint Louis, and will crown the tournament champion. The season would feel incomplete without it.

Technically, there would be another shot of it happening in Indianapolis if some Valley team is so daring to deny basketball fans what they want, nay deserve. But no one wants to risk it that long, although everyone would like that to be the unexpected fourth round in this battle, one that could send one of these teams to the National Championship game.

That would be a glorious finale for this series, one that would seem fitting given all that we have seen out of these two over the past two seasons.

Perhaps we shouldn't put the final edit on that 30 for 30 documentary for another few weeks. This story needs a fairy tale ending.