Key statistics: WSU scored 17 points, all in the first half, off eight Northern Iowa turnovers. The Shockers made 11 of 24 three-pointers, the best percentage (45.8) by any UNI opponent this season. Three previous opponents shot better than 40 percent against the Panthers.
Records: WSU 27-3, 17-1 MVC; UNI 27-3, 16-2
How the game turned: The Shockers trailed 20-18 when they forced a bad shot by Nate Buss. Zach Brown, with no defender within 15 feet, made a three-pointer. UNI’s Seth Tuttle lost the ball because good positioning by Bush Wamukota gave Ron Baker an opening to knock it away. Baker’s layup gave the Shockers a 21-20 lead. UNI’s Jeremy Morgan dribbled the ball out of bounds and Wamukota scored on a follow shot. That sequence started WSU’s run to a 38-26 halftime lead.
Stat that shouldn’t surprise you: Baker made 3 of 7 three-pointers and scored 17 points. In home MVC games, he is 22 of 49 (44.8) percent from three-point range.
Stat that might surprise you: The Shockers recorded 19 assists and a season-low three turnovers. While they routinely take care of the ball carefully, those numbers in a big game against a good defensive team are eye-popping.
Next up: vs. Missouri State/Southern Illinois, noon, Friday, MVC Tournament
▪ ESPN’s Joe Lunardi put both teams as No. 4 seeds. Jerry Palm moved WSU up to a No. 5 seed after the game. From the Missouri Valley Conference’s perspective, it got the best result. Both teams have a chance at very good NCAA seeds and interest builds for the anticipated rubber match in St. Louis.
▪ The Shockers trailed 20-18 when Buss took a running one-hander, very much an un-Panther kind of shot, with 18 seconds to go on the shot clock. Buss jumped to pass to Wyatt Lohaus, covered by Fred VanVleet, and had to change plans in the air. The shot missed badly and WSU took the lead on its next possession.
That summed up the crucial moments of the first half. The Shockers played much more aggressively than they did in Cedar Falls and took UNI out of its patient comfort zone. The Shockers pushed UNI’s guards away from the basket when defending screens and rarely let Wes Washpun, Deon Mitchell and Tuttle get rolling toward the basket, as they did all too often in the first meeting.
“We tried to run a lot of guys (at Tuttle) and not let him get in a rhythm,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “You have to give him some different looks. We were better tonight against him. We were more of a pest for him tonight than we were, and that was my fault the way we played him, in Cedar Falls.”
Tuttle scored 16 points on Saturday and made 6 of 8 shots to go with seven rebounds and six assists. He had 29 in the first game.
“They were more aggressive with their press, they were more aggressive on the ball screen,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said.
That aggressiveness forced turnovers and missed shots and the Shockers did a great job of turning those into baskets. UNI players faulted their transition defense on several plays that allowed the Shockers to push the ball past the defense for easy baskets.
“Those three or four baskets, and a couple offensive rebounds that turn into points, that’s going to be hard against a team this good,” Jacobson said.
In all, the pace favored WSU and that will be something to look for if the teams meet in St. Louis.
▪ ESPN’s Seth Greenberg did a nice job with the thankless, often-awkward “Behind the bench” and in-game interview segments. It probably helps that he has a good relationship with Marshall. Marshall credited him with lobbying for “College GameDay” to visit Koch Arena.
“He had a lot to do behind the scenes, working the people at ESPN on our behalf to get GameDay here, and to make this such a special afternoon,” Marshall said. “I was going to give him whatever access he needed because I know that he was working behind the scenes the whole time.”
▪ WSU’s offense worked well for many reasons and things always look good when a team makes shots and doesn’t commit turnovers.
Part of their surge happened because the Shockers made Tuttle play defense late in the half. For much of the early part of the game, he didn’t because double teams took the ball out of Carter’s hands. When Tuttle did have to play defense, he picked up fouls. VanVleet wisely drove into him late in the first half to give Tuttle his second. He picked up third midway through the second half.
“We made shots,” VanVleet said. “We didn’t do anything particularly different. Tuttle got in foul trouble and that helped. When their best player gets in foul trouble, it limits them in ball-screen coverage.”
▪ The “mid-major” discussion got tired at least three seasons ago with Wichita State. You either have to be cold-hearted or stubborn as a basketball fan to watch those teams play and want to dismiss them as something other than really good basketball teams. Still, it is worth mentioning how special Saturday was for both teams. They’re not going to get that star treatment often and both had to win games at a ridiculous pace to land ESPN’s affections.
That kind of day didn’t seem possible when WSU started planning to renovate Levitt Arena around 15 years ago. Through two presidents, two athletic directors and two coaches, WSU kept moving its program in the right direction. That should not be taken for granted.