ST. LOUIS — Northern Iowa guard Matt Bohannon was ready to say goodbye to Evansville star D.J. Balentine after the two teams had their final regular season meeting Feb. 27, but he had a feeling the Panthers and the Aces would square off one more time before the season’s end.
“I would say it’s the last time I’ll be playing you,” Balentine recalls Bohannon saying, “but we both know I’ll see you Sunday.”
Just as “Monday” is synonymous with the NCAA Tournament title game, “Sunday” is how everyone around the Missouri Valley refers to the conference title game.
As Bohannon predicted, No. 2 seed Evansville and No. 4 seed Northern Iowa met Sunday in the MVC Tournament finals. The Panthers eked out a 56-54 victory as senior Wes Washpun’s jumper at the buzzer bounced high off the back rim and through the net, sending them to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament.
In each regular season meeting, Northern Iowa took an early lead and held off an Evansville comeback. Sunday was more of the same.
Northern Iowa led by 17 points late in the first half and 35-18 early in the second. Evansville roared back behind Balentine and junior guard Jaylon Brown to take a 48-47 lead with 3:39 remaining.
Balentine and Washpun battled back and forth in the final three minutes. After Balentine’s reverse layup force a tie with 25 seconds left, Washpun created just enough room against the Evansville star with a step-back to get his game-winner on the rim.
“We wanted to make them take those tough shots,” Balentine said.
When Washpun’s shot drew iron, Northern Iowa forward Klint Carlson was eyeing an opportunity for a putback. Then he realized that wouldn’t be necessary.
“I thought it was just going to be the perfect angle for it to drop in,” Carlson said. “Once it did, I turned to find Wes, chase him down and hopefully tackle him to the ground.”
Washpun led the Panthers’ down the stretch and finished with a team-high 18 points and three assists. Carlson had a career day with 17 points, including 13 in the first half. Junior guard Jeremy Morgan added 14 points and made three 3-pointers in the second half, including a huge one with 1:44 remaining.
Balentine scored 15 of his game-high 20 points in the final 13 minutes, and Brown scored 16 of his 18 points in the second points.
Northern Iowa’s defensive game plan was to focus its efforts on Balentine and all-conference center Egidijus Mockevicius. While locking down Balentine remained a priority, the Panthers had to increase their attention to Brown when he became more aggressive, giving Balentine a few more opportunities.
“D.J. is a heck of a player, one of the best players we’ve ever seen in this league,” Washpun said. “I can’t say enough about him as a player and a competitor.”
Evansville coach Marty Simmons described the comeback as one of grit, fight and resilience. But in the end, Washpun had the final say.
“We have all the confidence in the world in Wes to create plays for us, ” Bohannon said of the final play. “From my perspective and where I was at on the floor, it looked good all the way.”
Bohannon predicted that correctly, too.