More history. More rings. More scissors.
No. 11 Wichita State cut down the nets at Koch Arena for the third time in the past four seasons on Saturday and celebrated their third Missouri Valley Conference title under coach Gregg Marshall. The Shockers survived a two-team duel over 18 games with a 74-60 win over No. 10 Northern Iowa and won the Valley’s most significant regular-season finale since 1951.
The national spotlight found Koch Arena because those two teams pushed each other for two months. Northern Iowa lost its MVC opener and then won 16 straight games, including a 16-point destruction of WSU on Jan. 31. In February, they watched each other cruise through the other nine schools, destined to decide things on the final day.
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“We knew we couldn’t lose again,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “I didn’t think they would lose again. What a great fight they put on for nine weeks.”
WSU needed to win seven straight games before finding redemption against Northern Iowa.
“We got our (butts) kicked up there,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “We just wanted another shot at them.”
The Shockers (27-3, 17-1 MVC) claimed their ninth Valley title and their first in consecutive seasons since 1964 and 1965. They also earned the top seed in the MVC Tournament and will play Friday in St. Louis against either Missouri State or Southern Illinois.
Northern Iowa (27-3, 16-2) finishes second with the fewest MVC losses since Bradley went 12-2 and finished second in 1960.
Second-place, in this case, still feels like a landing spot for one of the nation’s best teams.
“You have this kind of season, you want a championship,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “The reason we’re ranked 10th and 11th in the country is because we’ve got really good basketball teams. The entire country was able to see that today.”
Ron Baker led WSU with 17 points, making 3 of 7 three-pointers. VanVleet added 12 points. Both guards handed out seven assists without committing a turnover. Evan Wessel made 3 of 6 threes and scored 11 points and reserves Zach Brown and Bush Wamukota rescued WSU with key minutes in the first half.
UNI center Seth Tuttle scored 16 points, the lone Panther in double figures. The Panthers made 47.8 percent of their shots, but gave up 17 points on eight turnovers in the first half.
The day started with ESPN’s “College GameDay” drawing more than 6,000 fans to Koch Arena. Students camped out as four inches of snow fell to get their place on camera. It continued through WSU’s superb close to the first half and an equally strong start to the second.
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Northern Iowa made a push, cutting the lead to four points, before WSU finished with nine solid, sometimes spectacular, minutes to win the MVC’s first winner-take-all finale between ranked teams since 1951.
Many in the crowd came at 8 a.m. to watch ESPN’s preview show. They brought signs and flags and cheered madly when ESPN’s Jay Williams ripped open his shirt to reveal a Baker jersey and predict a Shockers victory. The fans who came back with tickets kept the noise level on dangerous given the slightest provocation from the Shockers.
“The crowd was so loud, it comes to a point when you really don’t think it can get any louder,” Baker said. “It’s like a screeching noise. In the moment, it’s really fun and enjoyable.”
WSU reversed the earlier meeting with a display of efficient basketball. It committed three turnovers, one in the second half, and made 11 of 24 three-pointers. It made 49.1 percent of its shots against UNI, the best shooting display by any opponent this season. The Panthers had held 19 straight opponents under 65 points.
The Shockers made their first big move late in the first half. Down 20-16, they took a 25-20 lead on a follow shot by Wamukota and the Panthers started to unravel with turnovers and missed shots.
Wamukota’s defense on Tuttle forced a turnover. Jeremy Morgan fumbled the ball out of bounds. Nate Buss fell out of bounds. Tuttle walked trying to bully his way to the basket against Wamukota’s 7-foot wall. The crowd noise spiked when WSU’s Tekele Cotton picked off a pass that led to a three-pointer by VanVleet for a 36-26 lead.
“We got a little flustered there and we lost our way,” Tuttle said. “Their pressure got to us.”
The Shockers cruised into halftime up 38-26. They extended that lead to 18 points in the second half.
A burst of outside shooting pulled Northern Iowa back into the game. The Panthers made 4 of 5 threes to quiet the crowd and force Marshall to call timeout. Matt Bohannon started the surge with a three and Paul Jesperson made two. Wes Washpun’s three cut WSU’s lead to 53-49.
Marshall prefers to let his team work through problems without using timeouts. In this case, he knew he couldn’t let the game grow any tighter. When Tuttle started taking advantage of double-teams to find open shooters, he needed to get his defense organized again. VanVleet told his teammates not to lose their minds, that they knew the Panthers wouldn’t fold up.
“They were playing so well,” Marshall said. “We just had to tighten up who we were going to double off of and who we were not going to double off of. We finally got a couple stops.”
The Shockers took a 57-51 lead on Baker’s jumper and pulled away again. Evan Wessel made two three-pointers for a 63-55 lead. VanVleet’s three made it 66-56 and Darius Carter scored in the lane for a 68-56 lead.
Northern Iowa won by 16 in its gym; WSU by 14 on its home court. The teams head to St. Louis as the top seeds and heavy favorites to meet again on March 8 in the championship game. A neutral-court meeting is the only fitting way to determine which team earns that piece of history.