The Missouri Valley Player of the Year looked the part when it counted. His Northern Iowa teammates stepped up, too, when the game looked hopeless.
Seth Tuttle had 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists, leading the 11th-ranked Panthers back from an 18-point first-half deficit to beat Illinois State 69-60 in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game on Sunday.
"I knew we weren’t out of it," said forward Nate Buss, who had 15 points with two blocks. "We’re not ranked 11th in the country for nothing. We’re not just going to lay down and die.
"We knew we were going to come back."
The Panthers (30-3) took control with a 25-4 run that erased a 36-22 halftime deficit. Jeremy Morgan had three 3-pointers in the run and Tuttle, the Valley Player of the Year and tournament MVP, added eight points, often getting loose from constant double-teaming.
"He really exerted his will," Illinois State coach Dan Muller said. "When were in zone, they got it in to Tuttle, when we went man, they got it in to Tuttle."
Daishon Knight had 16 points for fourth-seeded Illinois State (21-12), which needed a win to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. Knight had 25 points in the Redbirds’ semifinal upset of top seed Wichita State.
Northern Iowa won the title for the third time in seven years and has won 19 of 20 games.
"That was different than just about every game I’ve been a part of," coach Ben Jacobson said. "We had more than our hands full at halftime."
The winners shot 23 percent in the first half and 54 percent the rest of the way, and held Illinois State to 33 percent in the second half.
"We were the ones on our heels and we just told each other ‘That’s what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to reverse it,’" Tuttle said. "It was a lot of fun to be a part of that."
Deontae Hawkins added 14 points with four 3-pointers for Illinois State, which did much of the scoring on transition in the first half but couldn’t capitalize on early chances in the second.
"We missed three layups in the first four minutes," Muller said. "If we make those, we keep the lead even though they’re scoring."
Illinois State made eight of its first 12 shots, four of them 3-pointers, and led 33-15 with 2:44 to go in the half. Reserve Justin McCloud made all three of his 3-point attempts. The 18-point bulge was four points more than Northern Iowa’s largest margin of defeat in a loss at Wichita State that decided the Valley title in the regular season finale.
"We went on a nice little run," Tuttle said. "You could feel it turn, and it was turning there for a quite a while."
Northern Iowa began the game just 5 for 27 from the field, three of the shots swatted back by Reggie Lynch.
Illinois State: McCloud totaled nine points in the first two tournament games and reached double figures in one of the previous 17 games. … Muller played for the Redbirds’ last tourney title team.
Northern Iowa: Buss, who entered the tournament averaging 6.6 points, also had a team-high 23 points in the quarterfinals against Bradley. "It’s been kind of a tough season for me. I just came in trying to wipe my slate clean, trying to clear my head and not think about it so much."… The Panthers went almost seven minutes between points during one stretch in the first half, then hit seven of their first nine shots after the break.
Buss also made the All-Tournament team for Northern Iowa along with Knight and Lynch from Illinois State and Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet.