CEDAR FALLS — The evidence of what Northern Iowa learned from a rough start to the Missouri Valley Conference season keeps popping up.
Whether it was on an individual or team basis, the Panthers’ run to the Arch Madness championship and return to the national headlines — capped off with a buzzer-beater by Wes Washpun over Evansville on Sunday — showed plainly how wizened the team has become.
In all three MVC Tournament wins, UNI was tied with its opponents with 0:50 to go in the game. In all three wins, UNI had to weather a barrage of scoring from the other team. In all three wins, UNI had to answer in crucial moments to save its NCAA Tournament hopes.
At his weekly press luncheon on Monday, Coach Ben Jacobson said the qualities in his team that kept them levelheaded in those moments come directly from what happened in January.
“I think our guys have enough experience, both this year and last year, with the way things have gone, that at this point the way in which the game goes — whether we’re ahead and have to hold somebody off, or we don’t play great out of the chute — I think these guys have shown they’re OK either way,” Jacobson said. “That 2 1/2-week stretch where we weren’t playing well, they found a way to get through it. When we get into a basketball game and we’re down six or eight, or we’re up 10 and now we’re tied, it isn’t that big of a deal.
“For 2 1/2 weeks, when you don’t play well and you’re trying to figure out how to (play well) because you can see you have some work to do … I don’t think it really makes a difference now over the course of the game.”
The young man who was as vital as anyone in feeding Jacobson’s belief also happened to be the young man who hit the winning shot on Sunday.
Washpun struggled right alongside his teammates when the Panthers started Valley play 2-6, but he came back individually just like the team came back collectively. Washpun was named the MVC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and as part of the all-tournament team, just a few days after it was announced he was second team All-MVC for the regular season.
Unlike 2015, in which six players made a team highlighted by MVC Player of the Year Seth Tuttle, just five made it in 2016. Player of the Year Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker from Wichita State, D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius from Evansville and Anthony Beane from Southern Illinois comprised this year’s first team.
Washpun and UNI went head to head with all five of those players over the weekend — with Washpun himself guarding everyone on that list but Mockevicius at one point or another — and Washpun outperformed each one, averaging 16.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and three assists in the three games.
Jacobson said Monday he was originally “hopeful there would be six guys on the first team,” and added he felt everyone who got the honor deserved it. And knowing his senior leader, Jacobson figured being left off that list made Washpun’s play no coincidence. The team was on a national stage in November and December, fell off and came back. Washpun’s profile has done the same thing.
“I’m sure, with Wes, we didn’t talk about it, but knowing Wes like we all know Wes, I’m sure it had a little bit to do with how he played this weekend. In saying that, he’s played well for four or five weeks now. He was going to play well no matter what,” Jacobson said. “If you want to be known nationally, your team has to win. There’s no two ways around it. Your team has to win, and you have to win a lot. We did that last year, and that helped Seth. With Wes, everybody knew in December how good of a player he was because they watched him against Carolina and watched him against Iowa State. But then our team didn’t win, so you kind of go away.
“And now he’s right back to where we feel like — I’ve always felt he’s one of the better guards in the country. He’s got an opportunity again, now, to be on the national stage.”
UNI took Monday and will take Tuesday off before a pair of practices over the next few days, in an effort to get extra rest with the bye week before the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced.
Specific plans for a watch party are yet to be announced, but the CBS Selection Show will air 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.
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