St. Louis, MO (SportsNetwork.com) - The potential for the Missouri Valley Conference to have three teams invited to the NCAA Tournament is still on the table as 11th-ranked Northern Iowa goes up against the Illinois State Redbirds in the MVC Tournament title game on Sunday afternoon at Scottrade Center.
The assumption was that the top two teams in the MVC, UNI and eighth-ranked Wichita State, would end up playing each other for a third time this season, but the Redbirds made sure that didn't happen by posting a 65-62 upset win over the league's top seed on Saturday afternoon. The victory for fourth- seeded Illinois State was the second in this year's event, having defeated Evansville on Friday by a mere four points, 71-67.
As for the second-seeded Panthers, they took care of business against Loyola- Chicago in the semifinals on Saturday with a 63-49 victory. Friday saw the Panthers easily dismiss Bradley in the quarterfinals, 71-46. With the latest win, UNI has posted victories in all but one of the last 19 outings, with that lone defeat coming at the hands of the Shockers in the regular-season finale last weekend.
Northern Iowa, which lost just two conference games during the regular season, posted a narrow 54-53 triumph over the Redbirds on the road in late January and then had an easier time of it at home a few weeks later, 83-64.
Illinois State trailed by as many as 12 in the first half against the Shockers and was presumably heading for defeat like so many other MVC teams, but the Redbirds turned it around in the second half with a sensational 63.2 percent shooting from the floor and a near-perfect 15-of-17 at the free-throw line. Daishon Knight tallied a game-high 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the floor, followed by Reggie Lynch and DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell with 11 and 10 points, respectively. In addition to limiting Wichita State to just 4-of-18 shooting out on the perimeter, ISU also outscored the favorites at the free- throw line, 17-4.
Knight continues to lead the Redbirds in scoring on the campaign with 14.2 ppg, his 79 assists second only to Paris Lee (6.7 ppg) who has delivered on 112 such passes. Akoon-Purcell (12.9 ppg) is responsible for another 12.9 ppg and is first with 5.5 rpg, but he is only a fraction of a rebound ahead of Lynch (9.4 ppg) who, in addition to pulling down 5.4 rpg, he is by far the best shot blocker for the program with 82 rejections, all while having fouled out of nine contests.
UNI scored the first points of the game against Loyola-Chicago and never looked back on Saturday night, hitting field goals at a 51.2 percent clip in order to combat a mere 5-of-17 showing behind the 3-point line. Seth Tuttle delivered 13 points and six rebounds for the favorite, followed by Jeremy Morgan and Marvin Singleton with 11 points apiece, the latter pulling down seven boards for a squad that held a 27-18 advantage on the glass and didn't allow the Ramblers a single offensive rebound.
Tuttle may not be a high-flying scorer, but he is one of the best all-around performers the MVC has seen in a long time. Not only is he the only player on the Panthers scoring in double figures on the season with 15.3 ppg, shooting a stellar 62.3 percent from the field, he is also the leader on the glass (6.7 rpg) and tops with 107 assists, a rare feat these days in college basketball. The lack of scoring punch for the Panthers actually goes well with their defense which is giving up just 54.1 ppg on 39.0 percent shooting from the floor.