Northern Iowa Head Coach Ben Jacobson always wants the ball in Wes Washpun's hands in tight situations and that strategy paid off during Sunday's Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship win over Evansville. Washpun hit a 17-foot jump shot that bounced on the rim, went straight up in the air and through the hoop for the game winning shot in St. Louis. The final score was 56-54.
UNI built a formidable 14 point half time lead, only to see Evansville come from behind and take the lead behind the sheer will power of Aces' back court of D. J. Balentine and Jaylon Brown. Balentine, Evansville's all-time leading scorer was held to five first half points and scored 15 pressure packed points in the second.
Down the stretch, it was a battle between Washpun and Balentine. Evansville fought back, got the score close and with 3:37 left, Balentine's driving lay up gave the Aces their first lead at 48-47. Washpun regained the lead with a lay-up of his own. With 1:57 to play Balentine buried a jumper and Evansville led 50-49.
Jeremy Morgan, who made the all-tournament team, and hit a big 3-pointer against Wichita State the day before, buried another long triple and the Panthers led 52-50.
Balentine was fouled and made the ensuing free throws and the game was tied with 1:18 to go. Neutral fans were begging for overtime, and partisan fans were losing their minds as a Washpun jumper gave UNI the lead with 50 seconds left and then Balentine matched him with a dazzling reverse lay-up with 23 ticks left.
Washpun, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player then made that bouncing jumper.
Joining Washpun, Morgan and Balentine on the all-tournament team were Evansville's Jaylon Brown and Northern's Klint Carlson. Brown was the spark behind the second half come back. He scored 16 second half points. Carlson scored a career high 17 points. 13 of those were in the first half.
Washpun didn't know he would take the shot, but coach Jacobson wanted his team to clear out for his big game performer.
"There's not a better feeling in the world," said Washpun. "I couldn't ask for a better opportunity than that. When it fell through, all I could think was we're going to the NCAA tournament, and we're the conference champs back-to-back."
Last season the Panthers were secure in their position in the NCAA tournament prior to winning the MVC tournament title, but early season struggles put them into a 'must win' situation. Jacobson told his team their journey was more difficult than the previous year.
"Last year we knew we were in," said Jacobson. "These guys have come so far in six weeks, and the leadership has been so great. I am so happy for Bo and Paul and Wes, I can't even tell you."
Morgan's clutch shots over the last two days were huge and believes his team has the mental toughness to succeed in pressurized situations.
"Just toughness and staying together," said Morgan as he put on his championship tee-shirt. "We're a family. We trust in each and every guy out there. We had ups and downs in the season, but coach told us to stay with it and that's what we did."
The win was UNI's third over Evansville this season, by a grand total of seven points.
UNI is the seventh league team to win back-to-back tournament titles and the first since former member Creighton doubled up in 2012 and 2013. The trip to the NCAA tournament is the seventh in the last 13 years for the Panthers. It is believed to be the first time an Arch Madness winner defeated three 20-win teams to take home the trophy.