Wes Washpun has played a lot of basketball, but never felt similar excitement.
Washpun’s 17-footer caromed off the back iron, brushed high off the backboard and fell through at the buzzer to give Northern Iowa a 56-54 victory over Evansville in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament on Sunday at Scottrade Center.
“I haven’t made a shot like that in a long time,” said Washpun, a 6-foot-1 senior point guard who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “To be honest, I think that’s easily the best shot I’ve ever made in my basketball career. When it bounced up, I was just thinking, ‘Drop for me, please.’”
Washpun’s wish was granted as the fourth-seeded Panthers (22-12) clinched a berth in the NCAA Tournament with their second consecutive MVC Tournament title.
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I haven’t made a shot like that in a long time. To be honest, I think that’s easily the best shot I’ve ever made in my basketball career.
Northern Iowa senior Wes Washpun
“I don’t know if I’ve been a part of one that went straight in, let alone one that went in like Wes’ did today,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said of the buzzer-beater.
Klint Carlson was near the basket when Washpun’s miraculous shot fell.
“I saw it hit the back of the rim, and I was crashing just to see if I could get a tip,” Carlson said. “Once it went up there, I thought it was going to be the perfect angle for it to drop in. Once it did, I turned around to find Wes, chase him down, and hopefully tackle him to the ground.”
The Panthers are the seventh team to win back-to-back MVC Tournament championship. Evansville, meanwhile, is likely to be left out of the 68-team NCAA Tournament. The Purple Aces (25-9) haven’t qualified since 1999 when they lost to Kansas in the first round.
The NCAA Tournament field will be announced Sunday.
“I’m sure it will be anxious,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said of the upcoming week. “There’s nothing easy for us at Evansville. Man, I just pray that we get an opportunity to maybe play in the NIT. I think that would be a big step for us. I think those guys in the locker room are very deserving of that opportunity.”
Northern Iowa, which trailed 10-0, 17-6 and 21-10 in its 57-52 overtime victory over top-seeded Wichita State on Saturday, led most of the game Sunday.
The Panthers led by 17 points three times, but the Purple Aces took a pair of one-point advantages late in the second half on layups by D.J. Balentine.
Balentine’s second layup made it 50-49 with 2:02 to play, but Jeremy Morgan answered with a 3-pointer to put Northern Iowa on top 52-50.
There’s nothing easy for us at Evansville. Man, I just pray that we get an opportunity to maybe play in the NIT. I think that would be a big step for us. I think those guys in the locker room are very deserving of that opportunity.
Evansville coach Marty Simmons
Balentine’s layup made it 54-54 with 25 seconds left, and Jacobson opted against calling a timeout to set up a final play. Washpun made it work with his memorable jumper.
Balentine was overwhelmed with sadness when asked whether he was satisfied with Evansville’s defensive execution on the final play.
“Yeah. We wanted to make them take tough shots,” Balentine said, unable to continue.
Washpun led Northern Iowa with 18 points. Carlson had 17 points and Morgan had 14 points, going 4-for-5 from beyond the 3-point line, along with four blocks.
Balentine led all scorers with 20 points for Evansville, while Jaylon Brown had 16 of his 18 points in the second half. Egidiju Mockevicius had six points and 19 rebounds.
The Panthers shot 45 percent (21-for-47). Evansville shot 37 percent (20-for-54).
Oh, so close
Northern Iowa won all three games this season against Evansville – by a combined seven points. The series could have hardly been any closer.
“Ben is a good friend and someone that I have a lot of respect for. He’s a great coach,” said Simmons, who coached at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville from 2002-07. “They’re very detailed. They game-plan extremely well. ... We don’t have excuses. We just come up one play short. It hurts.”
Jacobson said Simmons has long been one of his most respected peers.
“Marty is someone that has been a tremendous role model for me, somebody that I have looked up to in our league,” Jacobson said. “He demands and expects a lot out of his players. You can feel that when you play against him. Certainly, as an opposing coach, you have a lot of respect for that. You can see that his players have the ultimate level of respect for him because of how hard they play.”
Jacobson went one step further.
“We’ve gotten to know each other away from basketball,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s a better man. He goes about all of his business the right way, and he coaches his kids hard, and he doesn’t cut any corners. I’ve just got an unbelievable amount of respect for Marty.”