CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – The Panthers limped into the McLeod Center Saturday, last-second losers in their previous two. Waiting for Northern Iowa in its home arena stood the No. 15 team in the nation, Wichita State.
Six-thousand-twenty-three fans prepared to witness how their hometown squad would respond. The "World Wide Leader" sat court side too, as ESPN 2 would to air their response to the nation.
Wounded and back into a corner, the Panthers pounced on the opportunity, reversing their last-minute fate with 57-52 win.
"That's as happy as I've been for a group of guys in quite a while," Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said. "Because of what happened last week. I told them, asked them, told them, asked them to get over it. I kept going back and forth and they did."
The team picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Conference and with NCAA Tournament dreams experienced its low point of the year following a two-game road trip that resulted in losses. The Panthers held the lead in both games with four seconds remaining against Indiana State and 31 left versus Evansville.
Saturday, the Panthers' season rose to its apex. Northern Iowa (12-11, 5-6) pieced together two double-digit runs to outlast Wichita State (19-4, 8-3). A 10-0 run in the first half gave the Panthers enough cushion for a tie at the half. A 23-6 run in the second half finished the job and sent the No. 15 team back to Wichita with its lowest point total of the year.
Still, UNI made it interesting, missing four free throws in the final three minutes. But this time, they closed.
"I don't know that we had to have the ending we had," Jacobson said. "We'll certainly take it and it makes it a little more exciting but because the guys have played so well, they needed something to feel good about."
The Panthers' faithful shared that "good" feeling. As time expired, the crowd that filled the arena with its loudest cheers of the year rushed the court.
"You feel a little tingly in your body," UNI junior Chip Rank said. "It's loud, and just a lot of fun out there.
You try to stay focused but, it's just lots of fun."
Rank possessed enough focus to spark the decisive second-half run. He pulled down two offensive rebounds, which transformed into five points. Three of those five came after he dished to a wide open Marc Sonnen who buried a 3 to give UNI its first lead since the first half at 37-36.
On the ensuing defensive possession, Rank tipped a loose rebound to Sonnen, who returned the favor and found Rank, who then made the game 40-36.
"Coach Jake, his pregame, was don't leave anything in the locker room. Leave it all out there," Rank said. "I think, a big team coming in, I didn't want to leave anything in the locker room. I wanted to make things happen – the little things."
The little things added up to a 10-point Panthers lead with 7:29 remaining. Anthony James, who finished with a game-high 16, put an exclamation point on the run in a big way, drilling three straight jumpers.
Then, Northern Iowa stopped doing anything altogether. UNI made two field goals the rest of the way and missed four free throws.
Wichita State ended a six minute drought with a Cleanthony Early jumper and eventually trailed by two with as little as 15 second remaining.
"We have some experience in that department now," said James, who was one of five Panthers with at least eight points. "Going to the last wire against Indiana State and Evansville, we kind of realized what needed to be done."
The Shockers didn't. Down three, Malcolm Armstead dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds. Still distraught over the turnover, Wichita lost Tuttle in the front court, who authoritatively ended the game with a dunk and rid the Panthers' memory of the recent road trip.
"That's a good feeling right there. That's was a really good feeling. Especially after everything this team has gone through so far," Tuttle said. "We've had some close games not go our way lately and how we've had to come from some tough loses and we had to keep battling to get this win tonight.
"Just to have that ball fly in the air and I know I'm going to get to turn and go hard at the rim, and put an ending statement on it, it felt really good."