ST. LOUIS — Wes Washpun was given the chance to send Northern Iowa to the NCAA Tournament. He had to wait a second before he knew he had done it.
Washpun hit a jumper from the top of the key that bounced high off the back of the rim and fell in at the buzzer to give the Panthers a 56-54 victory over Evansville on Sunday in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson had a timeout but didn’t call it, instead letting Washpun decide the game. He stood alone, dribbling the ball until he started for the basket, then made a crossover move, clearing just enough space for the straight-on jumper.
"That’s what he allowed me to take so that’s what I had to take," Washpun said of the defense. "Not a better feeling in the world."
The Panthers led by as many as 17 points before giving up the lead in the final minutes.
"We gave up the momentum and then we had to find a way to win," Jacobson said. "A lot of times, that doesn’t happen. Usually, you don’t beat them."
Washpun, named the tournament MVP, made two big shots in the final minute, also scoring from the key to put Northern Iowa up by two with 50 seconds to go.
D.J. Balentine’s reverse layup tied it with 24.9 seconds remaining on Evansville’s third scoring chance in the same possession. Then Northern Iowa held it for the final shot.
Washpun had 18 points, five rebounds and three assists for Northern Iowa (22-12), following up a 20-point effort in an overtime victory over top seed Wichita State in the semifinals. Klint Carlson added 17 points for the Panthers, who repeated as champion.
They dispatched Evansville (25-9) for the third time this season — by a total of seven points.
Famous Northern Iowa alum Kurt Warner gave the team motivational support via texts.
"He just kept telling us to live in the moment," said Jeremy Morgan, who added 14 points and four blocks.
Balentine had 20 points and Jaylon Brown added 18 for Evansville, which hasn’t made it to the NCAA Tournament since 1999. The conference tourney winner gets an automatic bid and Wichita State could get an at-large bid.
Northern Iowa has won the tournament four of the last eight years and enters the NCAA Tournament having won 12 of 13 games.
"Coach Jacobson told us it’s harder to do what we did this year, when you go through a little bit of a rut and pick yourself back up," Washpun said of the Panthers, who started 2-6 in conference play.
The Panthers twice led by 17 points, late in the first half and in the opening minute after the break when Morgan’s 3-pointer made it 35-18.
Brown and Balentine had big second halves for Evansville, scoring 16 and 15 points. Evansville twice led by a point in the closing minutes.
"We just played a lot harder, we had better rhythm and I just thought we played faster," coach Marty Simmons said. "Those are all things we certainly wanted to do in the first half. No excuses."
Northern Iowa led 32-18 at halftime, the second-fewest points scored in the first half by Evansville this season. The Purple Aces mustered just 16 in the first half at Northern Iowa in the regular season finale.
A 21-4 run capped by five points from Carlson gave Northern Iowa a 26-9 lead.
Carlson had 13 points in the half and Balentine, the leading active scorer in the NCAA, was held without a point for more than 17 minutes.
Teams in the title game grabbed all the all-tournament spots, with Carlson and Morgan also representing Northern Iowa and Evansville represented by Balentine and Brown.
NORTHERN IOWA: Carlson averages 6.6 points but was 8 for 12 from the field and added five rebounds. Morgan was 4 for 5 from 3-point range.
EVANSVILLE: The Purple Aces shot 23 percent in the first half, 50 percent in the second half. Egidiju Mockevicius had 18 rebounds.
Jacobson was so relieved to win that he had no immediate reaction when asked what seed Northern Iowa deserves. "No. Are you crazy?" he said. Evansville, which won the CIT last year, could land in the NIT.
"I’m sure it will be anxious," Simmons said. "There’s nothing easy for us."