Many were expecting a showdown between Northern Iowa and Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game.
Illinois State saw things differently.
While the 11th-ranked Panthers are headed to the NCAA Tournament no matter the outcome Sunday in St. Louis, the fourth-seeded Redbirds will have to pull off a second straight upset to earn their own bid.
Before Northern Iowa (29-3) rolled to a 63-49 win over Loyola-Chicago in Saturday’s second semifinal, Illinois State (21-11) stunned the eighth-ranked Shockers 65-62 to advance to its first MVC title game since 2012.
Senior Daishon Knight scored 25 points — one off his season high — and hit six of seven shots in the second half to help the Redbirds shoot 63.2 percent from the floor in the final 20 minutes en route to a sixth straight victory.
It also marked the first time Illinois State beat a team ranked at least that high since a win over Larry Bird’s fourth-ranked Indiana State squad in 1978.
"If you’re going to beat a team like a Wichita State, you’re going to have to have somebody have a special day, and Daishon Knight had that," coach Dan Muller said. "It was a good day. We came down here to win (the championship). We’re certainly not satisfied, but we are happy about the win."
Muller’s confident group knows it can hang with the Panthers, too. Illinois State led by two late in the first meeting Jan. 25 before Nate Buss hit a 3-pointer with 5.1 seconds remaining to give UNI a 54-53 road win.
The Panthers cruised to an 83-64 victory in the second meeting Feb. 11, but the Redbirds have won the last two matchups in the conference tournament with quarterfinal victories in 2012 and ’13.
A win Sunday would send Illinois State to its first NCAA Tournament since Muller averaged 13.0 points as a senior forward for the Redbirds in 1997-98.
"We know we can’t come out sluggish, especially in the championship game," said center Reggie Lynch, who scored 11 points. "We know the team we’re playing is going to be coming out trying to win it."
Northern Iowa hasn’t won the MVC tournament since 2010, with that title game marking its previous victory in St. Louis before this year’s run. It arrived focused despite having an NCAA berth locked up, winning its first two by a combined 39 points.
Valley player of the year Seth Tuttle scored 13 against Loyola, while Marvin Singleton and Jeremy Morgan added 11 apiece. The Panthers also had another solid defensive effort and are among the nation’s leaders in scoring defense, allowing an average of 54.1 points.
"It’s fun when you’re getting stops," Singleton said. "That’s something we’ve been really good at this year."
Northern Iowa entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed after a 74-60 road loss at Wichita State on Feb. 28 denied it the regular-season title. The Panthers certainly would’ve liked another crack at the Shockers, but they’re also not going to be any less motivated against Illinois State.
"We came here to cut the nets down," guard Deon Mitchell said. "Whoever we have at the end, that’s who we are going to play. We’ll be prepared either way."
Tuttle has averaged 20.7 points during Northern Iowa’s three-game winning streak against the Redbirds.