Wichita State's lead was shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. There was an uneasy feeling inside Koch Arena because Northern Iowa, despite a lackluster first half, has a way of winning games on the road.
When you've won 15 games in a row and moved higher in the national rankings than you've ever been, you win games everywhere.
The No. 20 Panthers won by 12 at Southern Illinois, by eight at Creighton, by 15 at Illinois State. All are difficult stops along the Missouri Valley Conference trail. They beat Iowa State in Ames.
But not here. Not this time.
Wichita State regrouped after a jumper by Gabe Blair cut the tension, stopping a 10-0 UNI run to start the second half and give Wichita State a four-point lead. The Shockers stretched it to as many as nine points later and won 60-51.
True, we're not even halfway through the Valley season, so it seems rash to call Tuesday night's game a must-win for Wichita State. That's exactly what WSU coach Gregg Marshall called it, though. He knew the Shockers couldn't afford to drop three games behind Northern Iowa; instead they're one game behind the Panthers with a lot of ground yet to cover.
"That was a big one,'' Marshall said.
Especially considering how WSU was coming off a disappointing one-point loss at Creighton on Saturday. You don't know how much that one hurt until you know how much the Shockers despise losing to Creighton.
"This one was huge for us,'' junior forward Graham Hatch said. "Especially after losing to Creighton by one, this is a big momentum-builder for us. (Northern Iowa) is a great team. They have all the tools to win the Valley. So to beat them pretty convincingly here is huge.''
It's interesting to watch visiting teams react to the electric atmosphere inside Koch Arena. Northern Iowa's players, with plenty of experience in winning road games, relished Tuesday night's opportunity. You could see it in their faces. The louder the arena rocked before the game, the more the Panthers smiled.
There's nothing that feels better than winning on the road in conference.
"Northern Iowa is a team that exudes that quiet confidence,'' Marshall said. "They're not cocky at all; they're not slapping the floor and doing all the clapping and things. They're just good and they do it in workmanlike fashion.''
Wichita State was the only Valley team to hold serve at home against Northern Iowa last season. Before that, UNI had won four games in a row at Koch Arena.
The Panthers, though, stumbled from the get-go Tuesday, struggling to find shots against the inspired Shockers. They drew much of that inspiration, Marshall said, in honor of George Fahnestock, a huge WSU booster and Wichita philanthropist who died last week and whose funeral was Tuesday.
"We're going to be a tough team to beat the rest of the way because we have a really special angel,'' Marshall said.
The Shockers steadily built a first-half lead, pulling ahead by as many as 14 points in a low-scoring game and leading 29-17 at halftime.
If the deficit seemed larger than it was because of how difficult points were to come by, Northern Iowa didn't show it to start the second half.
The Panthers, reluctant to attack the Shockers' defense in the first half, weren't shy about doing so to start the second half. All 10 of their points to start the half came inside.
Marshall often talks about how basketball is a game of runs and that he isn't surprised when opposing teams whittle away at big leads. But when the Shockers' 12-point halftime lead became a two-point advantage in just more than three minutes, there was a sense that the Shockers needed an answer. And fast.
Blair's jumper allowed everyone to take a breath. And it breathed life back into Wichita State's defense, which again clamped down.
Northern Iowa wasn't finished; it was a 36-35 WSU lead with 8:23 remaining. But two baskets by the Shockers' Clevin Hannah, his first two of the game, allowed that breathing thing to happen again.
Hannah scored only six points, but he had eight assists. His mate in the backcourt, Toure Murry, had only five points.
But J.T. Durley had 19 points and Hatch added 14 and WSU showed off its depth on a night when the guards weren't firing accurately.
"It's fun to be talking about a conference race,'' Marshall said. "And we're going to talk about it a lot.''
It is fun, especially considering the Shockers weren't expected to be here. But Marshall has his team running ahead of schedule, although a stretch of upcoming games will prove just how early they show.
It starts with a road game Saturday at Drake. After a home game against Illinois State on Wednesday, WSU goes to Southern Illinois and then to Northern Iowa on Feb. 3.
"We know they've had some close games at home,'' Hatch said. "We know they're beatable there.''
The Shockers gained more than a win Tuesday night. They gained confidence by beating the Valley's most confident team. Now, where do they go from here?