Looking at the stat lines of Northern Iowa’s win Friday against Wyoming, one would not expect the Panthers to have won by 17 points.
MVC Player of the Year Seth Tuttle had 14 points and 9 rebounds, but needed to attempt 12 field-goals to get there and also committed 4 turnovers.
Senior guard Deon Mitchell had 10 points but shot just 3-of-8 from the field. Senior forward Marvin Singleton and sophomore guard Jeremy Morgan were held scoreless. Junior guard Matt Bohannon had 6 points on a pair of 3-pointers.
Factor in that Wyoming shot 45.7 percent from the field and made 9 triples on Northern Iowa’s stingy defense, and how the heck did the Panthers come away with a 71-54 victory?
The answer is the bench.
Northern Iowa has one of the nation’s best players in Tuttle and is known for its lockdown defense and efficient offense. But what has made the Panthers a legitimate Final Four contender all season instead of just an ordinary good team is its depth, and that showed Friday.
The four reserves who played significant minutes combined for 41 points and shot 60.9 percent from the field. They also got the charity stripe 9 times and made 8 of those free throws.
Wyoming had 2 bench points.
Guard Paul Jesperson, a Virginia transfer and one of the few newcomers on the roster, led the team with 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including three 3-pointers.
Junior guard Wes Washpun added 10 points and 3 assists while senior forward Nate Buss recorded 13 points.
“The guys that are coming off our bench, that was in a lot of ways one of or maybe the key to our season,” coach Ben Jacobson said. “They’re terrific players. They have done everything for our team to be able to have success, and tonight it was the (Washpun and Buss) that got a bunch done for us. … What I liked best is at no time during the year did we not get great effort from everybody on our team. No matter the situation. Tonight, this is the reason why.”
Northern Iowa led 50-29 just over six minutes into the second half and appeared to have the game easily in hand. Then Wyoming senior Larry Nance Jr., who had a team-high 16 points, started a huge run to put some pressure on the Panthers.
Nance scored 8 straight points, and then Riley Grabau and Charles Hankerson Jr. drained back-to-back 3-pointers to cut Northern Iowa’s lead to 50-43 with 10:35 remaining.
The Panthers bench was there to weather the storm.
Jesperson made a 3-pointer. Then Washpun nailed a jumper.
Wyoming made a few more big shots to keep the game close, but Northern Iowa’s bench scored 20 of the team’s final 21 points as the Panthers once again pulled away.
“We go 10 deep sometimes,” Tuttle said. “I can tell you how it feels sometimes when you get out there for awhile your legs start reminding you how important it is to have a deep bench. And the important thing is that we got 10 guys that are capable of really helping our team every time they step on the floor. And as the game showed today, we had a lot of guys step up for us.”
Northern Iowa will face Louisville on Sunday with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
All quotes transcribed by ASAP Sports.