ST. LOUIS — Wes Washpun is following in his father’s footsteps, meaning the University of Northern Iowa senior is leaving an indelible imprint on the basketball court.
Washpun, a 6-foot-1 lefty guard, directed the Panthers to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. His buzzer-beating, rim-rattling shot Sunday enabled Northern Iowa to shade Evansville, 56-54 in the title game and repeat as the tourney champ. The 22-12 Panthers now await their opening-round in the NCAA Tournament. Pairings will be announced Sunday.
The 4-day tourney drew more than 50,000 fans for the 14th consecutive time and featured the most dramatic finish in the 26 years of Arch Madness. Washpun earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
“Wes’ impact is all over our program,” Panthers’ head coach Ben Jacobson said. “He has been terrific. His footprint and imprint have been all over the court. He enjoys the challenge defensively because he can guard people one-on-one and make it difficult for them.
“On offense, he makes us go. He makes plays for us.”
UNI assistant coach Erik Crawford noted, “Wes is our leader. He runs our transition game, takes care of the ball and he makes plays. He strives to be the best leader he can be by making the right decisions.”
That sort of sounds like dad Troy Washpun, another crafty left-handed backliner.
Troy Washpun starred at Alton High and then enjoyed collegiate success at two junior colleges and the University of Wyoming.
You might say Wes is a chip off the old block.
And that’s a good thing because Troy, also a left-hander guard, teamed with John “Main” Smith to guide the AHS Redbirds more than 35 years ago. The 1979-80 team went unbeaten in winning the Southwestern Conference championship and finished 23-3, including a regional title. Smith did the bulk of the scoring and Washpun ran the offense, handing out assists and scoring plenty of points.
He was selected the 1980 Alton Exchange Club Player of the Year.
“My dad has had a huge impact on my career,” Wes said. “He has been very important to me.”
The UNI Panthers have strung together some good seasons during Wes Washpun’s 3-year career. Jacobson’s Panthers are a composite 69-41 prior and celebrated three victories in last weekend’s Valley tourney. They defeated SIUC, Wichita State and Evansville, 3 teams that each have more than 20 victories.
A year ago, the Panthers won a school-record 31 games and Washpun served as one of their leaders.
He was second in assists, plus third in scoring and steals in earning the league’s Sixth Man award. During his sophomore season, Washpun was named to the All-Newcomer team.
This year, he earned second-team Valley honors. For the regular season, Washpun averaged 14.1 points, 5.4 assists and 4.1 rebounds in showcasing his multiple talents. The 22-year-old Washpun hit for 21 points when Northern Iowa upset then No. 1 North Carolina, 71-67 and he scored a season-best 28 points in an 81-79 victory over rival Iowa State. Washpun also collected 11 assists and 7 rebounds against the Cyclones.
“The coaches wanted me to focus more this season on changing speeds,” said Washpun, who played one year at Tennessee before transferring to UNI. “They wanted more stop and go stuff.”
He added, “So I’m doing a lot of different things this season. I’m trying to keep my turnovers down and hitting the players when they are in the right spots. That’s what makes our team go now.”
Jacobson said, “His emotional spirit and enthusiasm have made a difference for us. He has brought a lot to the program through his overall leadership and play.”
Evansville coach Marty Simmons said Washpun can do it all.
“He’s probably as good as any athlete in the league,” Simmons said. “He’s very competitive and an unbelievable player.”
And SIUC coach Barry Hinson pointed out,” Everyone on Northern Iowa has a role and what Washpun does is set up shots for everybody.”
Teammates have nothing but glowing admiration for Washpun. It’s akin to the way the Redbirds thought of his dad years ago.
“Wes is a fighter and he’s always in your corner,” said teammate Matt Bohannon, averaging 12.4 ppg. “He has grit and is one of the most team-oriented players you will find.
“When you are down in a Valley game, Wes is the guy you want on your side because he will do everything in his power to get the game back.”
Paul Jesperson, another teammate, added: “He’s great to play with on the court and one of the best teammates I’ve had. He’s one of my best friends.”
Bohannon, averaging 11.5 points, pointed out: “Wes is great on the court and he’s even better off of it.”
Crawford said Washpun’s learning curve is a good study for other players.
“Wes has expectations to make (big) plays and by being the best he can, he can achieve his dreams once he leaves our place,” Crawford said.