Defense leads Northern Iowa to Valley title
ST. LOUIS (AP)—Northern Iowa relied on its stingy defense all season to pull out of tight spots.
Now, the Panthers are riding that defense into the NCAA tournament.
Kwadzo Ahelegbe had 24 points and Northern Iowa used a dominating second half to beat Wichita State 67-52 on Sunday for its second straight Missouri Valley Conference tournament title.
“With so much on the line, we knew we had to take it to another level,” Northern Iowa’s Adam Koch said.
The nation’s second-best defense took Northern Iowa (28-4) to a second straight regular-season title and the Panthers were clamped down even more during Arch Madness. Northern Iowa held Drake and Bradley to long scoring droughts in the first two rounds, then did it to the conference’s second-best team, holding the Shockers without a field goal for more than 12 minutes during a 23-3 second-half run.
Northern Iowa overcame Adam Koch’s scoreless game with 25 points from its bench—13 by his brother, freshman Jake Koch—and scored 18 points off 16 Wichita State turnovers to become the first team since Illinois State in 1997-98 to sweep both Valley titles in consecutive years.
Happy to be in the NCAA tournament a year ago, the Panthers are headed there with higher expectations after earning the Valley’s automatic bid.
“This is on their list of goals,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “They get to decide as a team what their goals are and there are a couple still out there that we haven’t gotten, so there’s still a lot of motivation there.”
Wichita State (25-9) kept it close with 3-point shooting early in its first MVC title game since 1991 before fading under Northern Iowa’s pressure. The Shockers hit six 3-pointers to lead by three in the first half, but hit just 6 of 26 shots in the second and shot a season-low 32 percent overall.
Clevin Hannah had 12 points for Wichita State, which needed this win far more than Northern Iowa.
The Panthers were probably going to get into the NCAA tournament no matter what happened. The Shockers? They won 25 games—two over Top 25 teams—and finished second in the Valley, but a 12-6 conference mark and a weak nonconference schedule leaves them on the bubble.
Now, comes an agonizing week before learning their NCAA tournament fate.
“I would have loved to have knocked all those shots down, executed better and went to the NCAA tournament without a doubt,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “But it didn’t happen.”
Northern Iowa set a school record with 15 conference wins in the regular season and, after surprising losses to Bradley and Evansville down the stretch, was back in form at the Valley tournament. Northern Iowa held Drake and Bradley to 40 points each in the first two rounds, getting plenty of time to rest its starters.
Wichita State figured to present a stiffer challenge.
The Shockers split two regular-season games with Northern Iowa, pulling out a grinding 60-51 win in Wichita on Jan. 19 to knock the 20th-ranked Panthers out of the polls.
Both games were low-scoring—neither team had more than 60 points—which isn’t too surprising coming from the Valley’s two best defensive teams.
The title game started off that way. Wichita State missed its first six shots and needed 4 1/2 minutes to score. Northern Iowa had its share of trouble against the Shockers’ man defense, opening 1 for 9 from the field.
Then came the 3s.
Jake Koch hit two, then Anthony James made it three in a row. Wichita State’s Graham Hatch hit two straight of his own, followed by another by Demetric Williams. The teams went a combined 10 of 22 in the first half, the last one by Williams with 2 seconds left putting the Shockers up 3.
Wichita State made a short run to go up 39-33 in the second half, but that was it for the Shockers.
Northern Iowa turned up the defensive pressure, forcing Wichita State into contested jump shots and allowing nothing around the rim. The Panthers made a few shots of their own and by the time the game-defining run was over, they were up 56-42 and ready to make some noise in the NCAA tournament.
“They’re going to give somebody in the NCAA tournament an L and some fits,” Marshall said.
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