It appears the Northern Iowa Panthers are de facto state champions.
UNI notched its second Top 5 victory of the season, knocking off No. 5 Iowa State at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines by a final score of 81-79. The Panthers were white hot wire-to-wire in a win that, if we're being honest, probably doesn't surprise a lot of Cyclone fans. Ben Jacobsen has improved to 6-2 in the matchup, removing all doubt that he officially has ISU's number.
Paul Jesperson opened the game's scoring with a three, which would become one of two pretty common themes for the night. The other was Wes Washpun getting everything he wanted. Washpun made a layup and drew a foul on Northern Iowa's second possession, and he never looked back.
Throughout the contest, Washpun continued to get matched up on an Iowa State big, particularly Jameel McKay, who allowed eight early points to the UNI PG. He would score 12 of the Panthers' first 21 and finish the first half with 17 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals on a perfect 6/6 from the floor.
For as much as McKay allowed dribble penetration (or an impossible step-back jump shot from time to time), he did seem to have a decided advantage in the post against a smaller and far less physical Bennett Koch. I've come to the conclusion that McKay needs to touch the ball on every possession. The rim protector Fred Hoiberg brought him in to be is also beginning to develop a knack for posting up and scoring at will, an offensive wrinkle this team has been starved for since Royce White.
But issues continued to arise on the defensive end. Around the 12:00 mark, Steve Prohm switched to a 3-2 zone. On the Panthers' first offensive possession after the switch, Iowa State forced a turnover and got five quick points in transition. After a slight momentum swing, the game was then tied at 19 at the under-12 timeout, when Deonte Burton made his long-awaited debut.
Checking in with Hallice Cooke, Burton replaced McKay in the lineup, a decision I think we'll probably see less of going forward. I thought Burton meshed well with McKay throughout the game and probably should've be subbed in for Abdel Nader initially. Interestingly enough, McKay spelled Niang a short time later, and Burton proceed to score five fast points, yanking down two tough offensive rebounds and even pulling up for three from the top of the key (and making it of course).
But UNI continued to answer every punch ISU landed, leading 34-26 at the under-8 timeout, at which point UNI was a scorching 7/9 from long range. Jesperson alone was a perfect 4/4 in the first half.
Behind their sustained efficiency, the Panthers led 46-37 at the break, finishing 8/13 from three and 65% from floor. The Cyclones would tally zero first half fastbreak points, which is typically when they're at their best. And as the next 20 minutes would validate, it's pretty tough to excel in that area when the opposition is hitting everything.
The second half began with Georges Niang notching Iowa State's first four points and then picking up a quick foul, his third of the game. And back came Burton.
Like clockwork, Jesperson continued his hot shooting from deep, nailing a fifth three-pointer in response. Jesperson would actually miss his sixth attempt on UNI's next possession, which drew a sarcastic applause from the cardinal and gold in the stands—an offhanded sign of respect if there ever was one.
It was 53-45 in favor of the Panthers at the under-16. McKay got quick dunk out of the timeout, and again, Northern Iowa answered with a three. The two squads would trade buckets before Washpun drew a foul from behind the arc that incited a chorus of boos from the Cyclone faithful. The foul was preceded by a questionable reach-in call that gave Morris his third foul of the game.
Iowa State later nabbed a steal and got a breakaway alley-oop from Nader to cut the deficit to eight. But the contentious calls continued with an apparent arm bar on Thomas giving Thomas, Niang, Morris and Burton each three fouls around the 10:00 mark.
Despite a couple missed free throws after Morris took a hard foul in transition, ISU was able to cut the lead down to 66-60 with just under eight minutes to go.
And then a switch flipped.
Out of the media timeout, Morris jumped a passing lane and fed Niang for a two in transition. On the very next possession, the roles reversed, as Niang recorded the steal and fed Morris for a layup and-one. Morris missed the free throw, but Iowa State kept the possession alive and McKay slammed home a dunk to tie the game at 66.
In an odd and pretty damaging series of events, Jesperson proceeded to nail a straightaway three on the Panthers' next possession, which was followed immediately by a phantom foul under the basket on Nader that would add an additional free throw. Northern Iowa came away with a four-point possession, extending its lead back up to 75-71.
And then a switch flipped... again.
Jesperson went on to foul out after attempting to block a Niang shot, removing UNI's leading scorer and deadliest weapon from the game. The 6'6" senior finished with 21 points on seven threes.
With 1:56 to go, Washpun then picked up his fourth foul on Morris. Monte drained both free throws, cutting the Panther lead to 78-77, but Niang attempted a steal on the inbound and was called for a reach-in. With Northern Iowa in the double bonus, Washpun went to the line for two and sunk both.
A missed runner by Thomas (but subsequent defensive stop) kept the game within reach for the Cyclones at 80-77. Prohm then called a timeout to draw up an isolation play for Niang, who drove the lane, drew a foul and made both shots from the stripe. Those would be Niang's 29th and 30th points of the evening, to go with four rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block. The 30 points were tied for second most of his career.
And then came the glimmer of hope that Hilton Magic may have actually followed ISU to Des Moines. In a near identical scenario as the Iowa game, the Cyclones got a timely inbounds turnover in the waning seconds, this time on a stellar face-up play by the long-winged McKay.
But the magic faded out of Iowa State's subsequent timeout. A white-hot Niang drove the lane to attempt the go-ahead two but tripped over his own feet, turning the ball over to UNI down 80-79. A quick foul sent Washpun back to the line, where he made the first and missed the second, leaving 6.4 seconds for the Cyclones to tie or take the lead.
A Morris floater that we've seen fall plenty of times went too strong, and the Panthers prevailed.
The box score reflects a pretty decent night in the frontcourt for Iowa State, with McKay and Nader tallying 18 and 14 points respectively. Perhaps most troubling was the two combined points on 1/6 shooting from Naz Mitrou-Long's platoon-style replacement in Thomas and Cooke.
Burton added seven points in his debut. Morris finished with eight to go with six assists, three steals and no turnovers.
Wes Washpun had a team-high 28 for the Panthers, who finished 58% from the floor and 13/22 from deep.
The talk between now and Tuesday will almost certainly be whether or not this loss hurts Iowa State long-term, and I don't think it does. The Cyclones were never going to finish the season unbeaten, and sometimes a good old fashioned bitch slap back to reality is just what the doctor ordered. And UNI has proven to be no slouch.
Prohm & Co. will have about 72 hours to prepare for a Tuesday night date with No. 23 Cincinnati at Fifth Third Arena. It'll tip off at 6:00 PM on ESPN2.