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ST. LOUIS — There was a time when in-game adversity and Wes Washpun didn’t get along.
There was a time when foul trouble would have taken the Cedar Rapids Washington grad out of the game both physically and mentally. There was a time when he wasn’t the go-to player for Northern Iowa.
None of those times were Friday afternoon at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, where Washpun navigated the game with four fouls over the final 5:31 and drove to the lane for what amounted to the game-winning basket with 0:47 left. His poise and aggressiveness — both in running the offense and defending Anthony Beane — in crunchtime helped lead the Panthers into the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament’s semifinals with a 66-60 win against Southern Illinois.
“Man, he is just — he has taken on so much leadership and so much responsibility for our team,” Coach Ben Jacobson said of Washpun. “To be in the situation we were today, where he was playing great and then got his third and got his fourth and had to sit, you know, I don’t know if — two years ago that would have been really hard for him, and right now he is such a tremendous leader for our team.
“He did the best job on Beane. He’s going to guard (Fred) VanVleet tomorrow. He has been off the charts good defensively.”
Washpun finished the game with 11 points, four assists and those four fouls, but he also had two blocks — both on Beane, who finished with 17 points — in the late stages that kept the Salukis at bay.
Playing with those fouls, Washpun didn’t appear to back off in his activeness defensively. Jacobson pulled him off Beane for the first part of the second half to protect Washpun from picking up those fouls too quickly, but he couldn’t keep him away forever. Jacobson said when Jeremy Morgan was guarding Beane, there was “just a little more space” and that was “not real comfortable on our side of it.”
So Washpun switched back, and kept the wick turned up defensively. He couldn’t do it any other way, he said.
“I think it was just the circumstances of the game,” Washpun said. “I had to keep my aggression up for the sake of the team. And Beane is a heck of a player. If you’re not aggressive guarding him, then he’s liable to go on a 13-0, 14-0 run by himself. You have to stay aggressive guarding a guy like that.
“The rest of the seniors felt the same way, keep the aggression up, and eventually things will go our way. Keep the defensive aggression up. Keep going at them on offense, and the chips will fall where they may. All you can do is really lay it all out there.”
But it wasn’t just the seniors who stayed aggressive, and it wasn’t just Washpun who played through foul trouble.
Morgan picked up the third of his four fouls on Beane, too, and like Washpun, didn’t alter his play. He led the Panthers (20-12, 11-7 MVC) with 18 points and added four rebounds. Thinking too hard about being careful or what might happen if the game is extended can get players in trouble, Morgan said.
“Yeah, you can’t think like that,” Morgan said. “No matter how many fouls you have, when it’s going down to the end of the game, you’ve got to leave everything out there, stay aggressive, and that was our mindset the whole time.”
After going up 12 with 12:09 to go, UNI let SIU get the game within one possession four different times, with the Salukis tying the game on two occasions.
But through those runs, the Panthers never surrendered the lead — nor did they at any point in the game — and iced the game by making their final 10 free throws after an 8-of-15 start. At other points of this season, UNI wasn’t able to weather those runs.
With Washpun and Morgan spurring them on, the Panthers were able to weather it all and did as they have in 10 of their last 11: they won.
“We learned our lesson going through that period of time (earlier in the season),” Jacobson said. “We lacked a little confidence. We didn’t have all of our guys playing at the level they’re playing at now, and we hadn’t — this team hadn’t necessarily fought through some things. And now all of a sudden those things are in place, if you will. Our confidence is good. As we’ve talked about, our entire lineup is playing well. And these guys had to go through that stretch, and they found their way out of it. So now when we get into a game like that, it doesn’t — for them, in their mind, it doesn’t compare to going through 2 1/2 weeks where we can’t do too much right.
“They’ve learned and taught themselves how to fight through a stretch.”
UNI and Wichita State tip off at 2:30 on Saturday for their Arch Madness semifinal.
LOHAUS OK AFTER HYPEREXTENDING KNEE
UNI sophomore guard Wyatt Lohaus got off to a hot start in Friday’s quarterfinal against Southern Illinois, scoring all nine of his points in succession over the course of three minutes in the first half.
But on his last made basket, a layup, he ran into the base of the hoop on his way down, hyper-extending his right knee. He left the game for a few minutes to stretch it out, and came back in to play key minutes while Wes Washpun sat with foul trouble.
Lohaus said he doesn’t feel like it’s an injury that will linger too long, given he played all but the few minutes he was tended to by UNI athletic trainer Don Bishop.
“I think I might have hit the extension or something, but really, my leg just kind of hyper-extended. It was just a pain in the back of my knee that stiffened up a little,” Lohaus said. “It feels all right. I tried to keep it loose to prevent it from stiffening up (further). I’ll keep ice on it and stretch it as much as I can.
“Hopefully that’s all it is.”
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