ST. LOUIS — It’s the defending champion pitted against the No. 2 conference team in Sunday’s title game of the Missouri Valley Tournament at Scottrade Center.
That should make it a bright lights, big city affair in the finale for the 26th edition of Arch Madness.
Defending champ Northern Iowa faces second-ranked Evansville at 1 p.m. Sunday (CBS-TV) for the Valley men’s basketball championship and an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
The 21-12 Panthers upset top-rated Wichita State, 57-52, in an overtime thriller Saturday. Then 25-8 Evansville defeated Indiana State, 68-42 during the second semifinal in front of 14,299 fans. Through three days, the tourney has welcomed 40,256 spectators.
UNI has snared the Valley tournament championship 3 times in the last 7 years. Evansville, meanwhile, has never won it since joining the league in 1994. The Purple Aces finished second to Creighton in 1999.
“All of our focus is on Northern Iowa,” said ninth-year Evansville coach Marty Simmons, an assistant on the 1998-99 squad. The 1988 UE graduate guided the SIUE Cougars from 2002-07 before returning to his alma mater.
Simmons added, “We have to stay in the moment and hopefully, on Sunday, we will play the best 40 minutes that we have ever played.”
In the first semifinal, senior Wes Washpun led the way as fourth-seeded Northern Iowa ousted 24-8 Wichita State. The Panthers have defeated the Shockers twice in three games this season.
Washpun, the son of former Alton High standout Troy Washpun, scored a game-best 20 points. He made 7 of 16 shots, including 2 treys and 4 of 5 free throws. Washpun also collected three rebounds and two assists. Dad Troy starred for the Redbirds, notably in 1979-80 when they went 23-3 and won the Southwestern Conference crown.
“What a game!” Washpun exclaimed of the back-and-forth OT heart-stopper. “It’s a special win, ranks up there with the biggest ones we’ve had this season. They are all really special.”
Washpun made it special in the closing minutes of regulation play and in the 5-minute overtime. His 3-point play gave Northern Iowa a 45-43 lead with 4:57 remaining. The Panthers and Shockers were knotted 47-47 going into overtime.
And Washpun wasn’t finished. He hit a layup with 2:30 remaining in OT to put the Panthers in front, 51-50. Teammate Jeremy Morgan connected on a 3-pointer with 1:15 to play, putting Northern Iowa on top 55-52. Then Washpun punched in another layup with 16 seconds remaining to complete the scoring.
“What I was trying to do was get to the rim and finish or spread the ball out to the other players,” Washpun said. “I just go out there and try to makes plays for my team.”
Wichita State led 10-0 nearly 8 minutes into the game, but Northern Iowa regrouped. The Panthers got to within 29-23 at halftime before giving the Shockers fits in the second half.
“It was as great of a game as I’ve been a part of — there were a lot of good players on the floor,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “I haven’t been involved in a game that close, with that much on the line and the players having that much fun in a long time.”
Next up for Northern Iowa is an opportunity to repeat as the Valley tourney champ and secure an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“You enjoy this for a little bit,” Washpun said of the semifinal victory, “then you have to prepare yourself for tomorrow’s games.”
Anton Grady (14 points) and Ron Baker (12 points) paced Wichita State, which made only 20 of 63 shots, including 2-for-24 treys.
“It was a great defensive game, Northern Iowa played well and they made one more play than we did,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said.
Shockers’ guard Fred VanVleet, the league’s MVP, took the loss hard. He scored only eight points.
“Any time I don’t play well, our team doesn’t play well,” he said. “And I wasn’t very good today.”
He credited Washpun with powering the Panthers.
“It’s always fun to play against Wes because of the way he competes,” VanVleet said. “He took advantage of matchups down the stretch today and made the winning plays.”
Evansville built a 37-22 halftime lead and coasted past Indiana State, which closed at 15-17. D.J. Balentine’s 14 points led the Purple Aces, who had four players score in double figures. Their defense limited Indiana State to 14-for-55 shooting, or 26 percent. Devonte Brown’s 15 points were best for the Sycamores.
“I’m really happy for the team and proud of our guys,” Simmons said. “It’s a great opportunity for our team Sunday.”
Blake Simmons, a 6-5 junior and Marty’s son, said the Purple Aces are bubbling with enthusiasm about playing for a spot in the NCAA tourney.
“We’ve dreamed about it since we were kids,” Blake Simmons said. “We’re excited about it and can’t wait for it.”
Northern Iowa has beaten Evansville twice — 57-54 and 54-52 — so the Purple Aces foresee another close contest.
“I’m not surprised that we are playing them,” Balentine said. “They are a really good team and it’s going to be a grind-it-out type of game. But we will be ready to go.”