ST. LOUIS — Wes Washpun hit the shot Sunday that reverberated through Scottrade Center and caused a commotion nationally.
The Northern Iowa senior guard sank a rim-rattling buzzer-beater to lift the Panthers over Evansville, 56-54, in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
A crowd of 9,765 at Scottrade Center and a national TV audience got treated to a thrilling finish as Washpun’s basket propelled Northern Iowa back to the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers defeated Illinois State to win the 2015 title.
“I’ve never made a shot like that,” said Washpun, whose 15-footer hit the back of the rim, then bounced in the air and dropped through the hoop. Washpun, a 6-foot-1 senior guard, is the son of former Alton High standout Troy Washpun.
He added, “It’s the best shot I made in my career. When the shot hit the back of the rim and bounced up, I was thinking to myself:
When it did the 22-12 Panthers punched another ticket to the Big Dance. The NCAA will officially announced its tournament pairings next Sunday. Evansville fell to 25-9 and is confident of a NIT berth.
How big was Washpun’s basket in the 26-year history of Arch Madness in St. Louis?
“I’ve never seen a shot like that in our championship game,” Valley commissioner Doug Elgin said. “It was priceless.”
Ben Jacobson, the Panthers’ coach, will vouch for that.
“I haven’t seen a shot like that or even seen one that went straight into the basket to end a championship game,” Jacobson said.
Washpun’s shot was like a dagger in the heart for Evansville, coach Marty Simmons said.
“For an instant, it went through my mind that the shot wasn’t going to go in and we were going to overtime,” Simmons said. “But that’s basketball. That’s the way it worked out.
“We came up one play short and it hurts.”
It was Washpun (18 points), Klint Carlson (17 points) and Jeremy Morgan (14 points) pacing the Panthers. Washpun was named the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player, while Carlson and Morgan joined him on the all-tournament team. Evansville’s D.J. Balentine (17 points) and Jaylon Brown (14 points) also were all-tourney selections. Egidiju Mockevicius contributed 19 rebounds in the MVC finale.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our kids,” Simmons said. “They showed a lot of grit, fight and resilience. They came back and gave us a chance to win. But that doesn’t make the pain any less.”
Northern Iowa, beating Evansville for the third time — by a total of seven points — led 21-6 early Sunday and twice owned a 17-point lead, once in the second half.
Yet the Purple Aces stormed back. They used a 30-12 difference in a 16-minute stretch to forge in front, 48-47 with 3:38 remaining.
It remained a tossup game down the stretch. Washpun’s basket gave Northern Iowa a 54-52 advantage with 50 seconds to play and Balentine scored with 24.9 seconds remaining to tie it.
So Northern Iowa had the ball for the final shot and Jacobson had a simple plan — let Washpun decide it.
“We wanted him to take the last shot,” he said. “It would either go in at the horn or go into overtime.”
Once Washpun took the final shot, everyone waited to see what would happen. The Panthers got the perfect bounce to claim their fourth Valley tourney title in eight years.
“When it hit the rim, time just paused for a second,” Northern Iowa’s Matt Bohannon said. “And then it dropped in the basket.”
Simmons noted, “Washpun is a terrific player. He’s a lot like Wichita State’s Ron Baker. You have to challenge him all the time.
“He hit a tough shot.”
Perhaps it was the biggest one in Valley tournament history. Certainly, nobody from Northern Iowa nor Evansville will soon forget it.