Tekele Cotton scored 18 points and fourth-ranked Wichita State beat Northern Iowa 82-73 on Saturday night, clearing perhaps its toughest remaining hurdle for an unbeaten regular season.
Cleanthony Early had all 16 of his points in the first half for the Shockers (25-0, 12-0 Missouri Valley Conference). They became the first team to open 25-0 since Derrick Rose helped Memphis win its first 26 games in 2007-08.
Northern Iowa got as close as 44-43 before Wichita State went on a 12-1 run early in the second half. The Panthers pulled back within single digits before Fred VanVleet's 3-pointer made it 69-57 with just more than 5 minutes left.
Matt Bohannon had 17 points and Seth Tuttle scored 16 for the Panthers (11-13, 5-7), who were outrebounded 40-24.
The Panthers entered play with a sub-.500 record. But coach Gregg Marshall and the Shockers knew from experience that playing Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls would be a challenge.
Northern Iowa won eight of its first nine home games this season and was 4-3 here against Wichita State under coach Ben Jacobson. The Panthers were also one of the few teams to beat the Final Four-bound Shockers a year ago, winning 57-52 at home last February.
Northern Iowa — like nearly every team that hosts the unbeaten Shockers — fed off the energy of a sold-out gym in the first half. But the Panthers had no answer for Early, who led Wichita State to a 44-37 halftime lead.
Northern Iowa quickly cut the lead to one before the Shockers went back ahead 53-44 on Darius Carter's three-point play with 15:18 left. Ron Baker then found Cotton for a 3 to beat the shot clock and cap a 12-1 run.
Carter had 15 points, including a dunk with just over 3 minutes to go that erased any small hope Northern Iowa had of a comeback.
VanVleet had 14 points with seven rebounds and Baker scored 12 for Wichita State. Wes Washpun scored 14 points with six assists for the Panthers, who have lost three in a row.
The Shockers have just six games left in the regular season and should be solid favorites in each one of them.
Wichita State faces Evansville, Loyola and Bradley on the road — and all of those teams woke up on Sunday under .500 in the Valley.
The Shockers host Southern Illinois, Drake and a decent Missouri State team (16-8) in the season finale on March 1.
The Memphis team that the Shockers are a win from matching made it all the way to the national title game before a heartbreaking overtime loss to Kansas.
Wichita State isn't looking that far ahead quite yet. But over the last three months, the Shockers have done everything in their power to set up another run to the Final Four.