CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP)—Drake had no idea what to do.
The Bulldogs had just clinched their first Missouri Valley Conference title in 37 years, and first-year coach Keno Davis and his players were blissfully unaware of how to celebrate.
Drake can be forgiven for its naivete. Until this magical season, the 14th-ranked Bulldogs never had a reason to cut down the nets.
Adam Emmenecker scored 13 points and Drake clinched its first Valley title since 1971 with a 65-55 victory over Northern Iowa on Saturday.
Leonard Houston and Josh Young both had 12 points for the Bulldogs (23-2, 14-1), who bounced back from a 65-62 loss at Southern Illinois on Wednesday— their first since November—by outscoring Northern Iowa 17-7 down the stretch.
The Bulldogs improved to 6-1 when trailing at halftime on the road. Their win, combined with Illinois State’s loss at Indiana State, sealed the regular-season title.
“It’s surreal,” Young said. “Everybody’s excited, we’re definitely proud of the effort the team has put forth. But I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen so quickly for the Bulldogs. They were picked to finish ninth in the Valley, and last season was their first with an over .500 since 1987.
As they walked off the court, Young and Emmenecker asked each other what the protocol was for winning a title on an opponent’s court. Neither knew. Drake settled for a raucous celebration in the visitor’s locker room, dumping water on each other’s heads as though it were champagne.
“It’s good for our players to enjoy it tonight,” Davis said. “I hope we have a chance to cut down the nets in our facility.”
Down 29-28 at halftime, the Bulldogs pulled ahead 43-37 with 11 minutes left as Young sandwiched two 3-pointers around a long 3 by Klayton Korver. Northern Iowa (15-11, 7-8) rallied to tie the game at 48-all on a basket by Adam Koch.
That’s when Drake took over, displaying its brand of heads-up basketball that has led to 22 wins in 23 games.
Brent Heemskerk caught the Northern Iowa defense sleeping and threw a perfect alley-oop to Houston, whose dunk put the Bulldogs ahead 52-48. Korver grabbed a tough rebound and hit a 3 at the other end to give Drake a seven-point lead with 4:13 left. Emmenecker hit a layup in traffic to make it 57-50.
“We’ve been in that position before, so we’ve got an understanding of what we need to do,” Young said. “I think you see the leadership of this team. We’ve been doing it all year.”
Houston’s putback pushed the Panthers’ lead to 59-50 with 1:52 left. Emmenecker, a former walk-on, added eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals as Drake set a school record with just four turnovers.
Jared Josten had 12 points and Koch added 10 for Northern Iowa, losers of three of its last four.
“Those are the kind of plays they’ve made all year,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said of Drake. “That’s why they’re 23-2. They’ve continued to play good basketball and they did again today. They made plays when they had to.”
Despite missing 11 of its first 15 shots, Drake was able to go ahead 20-15 on a 3 by Jacob Baryenbruch. Northern Iowa answered with a 9-0 run, capped by a jumper by Kerwin Dunham, to go back up by four.
Drake responded with an 8-2 run, but Josten pulled up from nearly 30 feet and drilled a 3 as the clock expired to give the Panthers the one-point halftime lead.
The Bulldogs shot just 33 percent from the field in the first half but went 9-of-9 from the free throw line. Drake has won eight straight against in-state rivals Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa. The Bulldogs have beaten Northern Iowa four straight times.
“We feel like if we can keep it close until the end we’ll have a good chance to win,” Korver said. “It seems like guys are making big shots this year, big plays.”
And there’s more to go.
“We still have games left. There’s still the conference tournament left, there’s still goals out there on the table,” Emmenecker said. “We know we still have to be focused and ready to go every single night.”
The matchup was a role reversal for these in-state rivals, who spent decades toiling in the shadows of Iowa and Iowa State.
Two years ago the Panthers were the state’s mid-major darlings, earning a national ranking and third straight NCAA tournament bid while Drake languished near the bottom of the Valley. Second-year Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson hasn’t been able to maintain the level of success the Panthers enjoyed under former coach Greg McDermott.
Northern Iowa missed out on postseason play last season and will likely have to win next month’s conference tournament to receive an NCAA bid. Drake’s 17 second-chance points were a particular source of frustration for Jacobson.
“There were too many times when we didn’t work hard enough to get it done,” Jacobson said.