CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – Well, well, well. Somebody else wants to play ball in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Northern Iowa took Wichita State’s 27-game Valley winning streak – 30 if you count three wins in the MVC Tournament last season – and put a match to it with a 70-54 win Saturday afternoon at the McLeod Center.
Everything about the Panthers was on fire, from their shooting (60 percent), to their defense (WSU shot 35.4 percent) to their crowd (a sellout bunch of 7,050 went wire-to-wire bonkers).
“The best team won today,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “They made every shot.”
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The Shockers have ruled the Valley for so long that it was surreal to watch them get hammered. And hammered they were.
Northern Iowa took its first double-digit lead, 32-21, on a three-point play by dynamic guard Wes Washpun with 3:02 remaining in the first half. And the Panthers led by double digits, and by as many as 19, the rest of the way.
For so long, we’ve talked about all the things the Shockers have done right. Saturday, there was a laundry list of things they did wrong, starting with an inability to guard Washpun and his big running mate, 6-foot-8 Seth Tuttle.
Washpun, a junior point guard, spun his way into the lane and toward the basket numerous times without being curtailed. He had 16 points.
The biggest damage was done by Tuttle, who scored the Panthers’ first seven points in the first half and their first eight of the second and finished with 29.
Marshall was hoping his own senior, 6-foot-7 Darius Carter, could give Tuttle a fight. Instead, he had to throw in the towel and Carter continued his recent slump with eight points and three rebounds in 17 minutes. He appeared to want “no mas” in this confrontation.
Marshall sounded at a loss to explain what’s gone wrong with Carter. He refused to acknowledge his player’s struggle with a sore back that has plagued the Shockers’ center for more than a week.
“I’m sure Tuttle had something to do with it,” was all Marshall would say.
The Shockers tried others on Tuttle and freshman Shaq Morris was the most effective. But Morris can’t play long without getting into foul trouble, as was again the case Saturday when he was whistled for four fouls in 13 minutes.
Tuttle made 9 of 13 shots and 10 of 13 free throws.
What stood out most was Wichita State’s inability to guard Northern Iowa’s two best players. The Panthers picked-and-rolled the Shockers to death and exposed WSU for its lack of quality depth, especially defensively.
“Their bench certainly outplayed our bench tonight,” Marshall said. “Ours has played well, but tonight theirs was better. That was the entire theme of the game – they were better than us tonight.”
Marshall has to hope the “tonight” part of his statement leaves room that on another night, Wichita State will be the better team. The Panthers visit Koch Arena for the final game of the Valley season on Feb. 28 and there’s a good chance the team that wins the game will be cutting down nets.
WSU and UNI are tied for the MVC lead at 9-1. The Panthers have road games against Indiana State, Missouri State and Loyola, as well as the trip to Wichita. The Shockers still have to play at Bradley, Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Indiana State.
After Wichita State ran through the Valley last season, winning by six games, finding a challenger to the throne isn’t such a bad thing.
The conference needed some mystery. And the Shockers needed a challenge.
Northern Iowa’s challenge is real. The Panthers, ranked No. 18, could zip past the 12th-ranked Shockers in this week’s poll, although UNI’s loss to Evansville is looking worse all the time. The Purple Aces were beaten by Drake on Saturday.
Wichita State went more than nine minutes without a basket during a stretch in the second half, instead relying on Fred VanVleet free throws to change the scoreboard numbers. Ron Baker never got it going, making 2 of 10 three-pointers. WSU tried 24 three-pointers and made five. Northern Iowa made as many, but tried 17 fewer.
“We didn’t expect to come in here today and beat them the way we did,” Tuttle said. “But it was our goal. We knew they were a good team. They’re a great team.
“We were trying to get a statement win and I felt like we got one tonight.”
Every Valley team would love a piece of the Shockers, but most lack what it takes. That’s why Wichita State rolled through its first nine conference games with an average winning margin of nearly 17 points.
Northern Iowa has the bite to back up its bark and long-ruling Wichita State has a challenger to its throne.