ST. LOUIS — During Northern Iowa’s MVC Tournament title run last season, forward Klint Carlson played a grand total of two minutes. And they were the final two minutes of the team’s 71-46 quarterfinal win against Bradley.
The Northern Iowa sophomore’s role has changed as much as anyone else in the Missouri Valley over the 12 months since then.
The Panthers won their second consecutive MVC Tournament championship Sunday with a 56-54 win against Evansville. While point guard Wes Washpun hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer and earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, Carlson added 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting to cap off a terrific weekend that comprised three of his career’s best games.
After totaling 60 minutes of floor time his entire freshman season, Carlson played 85 minutes in this year’s MVC Tournament alone.
And they were productive minutes. Carlson was named to the All-Tournament Team with averages of 11.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per contest.
“I’ve grown a lot,” Carlson said before the championship matchup. “I give all the credit to coach [Ben Jacobson], the rest of the staff and all my teammates for instilling that confidence in me. I know every night I can just go out and give it my all and hopefully help my team, but I know they all believe in me.”
Northern Iowa dominated the first half of its championship victory, grabbing a 32-18 lead at halftime. With close to five minutes remaining in the period, Carlson alone was keeping pace with Evansville. He had nine points as the Panthers led 26-9.
Evansville owned a huge size advantage with 6-foot-10 senior Egidijus Mockevicius. Carlson, who stands at 6-foot-7, used his smaller size and greater quickness to his advantage against Mockevicius, blowing by for layups.
Carlson finished the half with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
“He had a big-time half,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “From our standpoint, I talked about the X-factor, and it was Klint in the first half. That’s why we’re up 14 at halftime.”
Evansville’s defense adjusted in the second half with Mockevicius backing off Carlson to clog the sophomore’s driving lanes. Even though Carlson made one 3-pointer in the first half when the Aces tried this strategy, Evansville coach Marty Simmons would rather risk another long ball from the 27.1 percent shooter than give up more easy drives.
Carlson remained an important part of the offense. After Evansville made the first stage of its comeback and cut Northern Iowa’s lead to 38-29 with 15 minutes left, Carlson handled a nifty pass from Washpun underneath the basket and converted the easy layup.
When the Aces made another run and pulled within 40-36 at the 9:43 mark, Carlson’s jumper stopped the bleeding.
That was the extent of Carlson’s scoring in the second half, but he also grabbed three defensive rebounds and found wide-open Jeremy Morgan for a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:44 remaining as a precursor to Washpun’s game-winner.
There were flashes of Carlson’s potential throughout the season.
After scoring 12 points against BYU, Carlson posted two more double-digit scoring outputs in Northern Iowa’s first MVC games. He banged up his knee in the next outing against Missouri State, and a lull in his production followed.
Carlson reemerged in a big way Feb. 13, scoring 12 points and five rebounds as Northern Iowa upset Wichita State and ended the Shockers’ 43-game home winning streak.
The up-and-coming forward reached a new level this past weekend by producing consistently on a big stage against quality opponents.
“Boy, I’ve been so impressed with where he’s come, in terms of his confidence,” Jacobson said of Carlson. “But in saying that, he hadn’t gotten onto the right track just in terms of being a confident young man. You’ve got to get out there and play, and you’ve got to have some success. He has to turn that corner, and he has.”