It's not easy playing on the road in the Missouri Valley Conference and the Northern Iowa Panthers learned that the hard way, dropping their first game in over two months to the Wichita State Shockers, 51-60.
A rowdy, sell-out crowd of 10,506 people filled Charles Koch Arena and made sure 20th-ranked UNI (16-2, 7-1) knew just how hard it would be to drop the Shockers (17-3, 6-2) on their own court—who have now won 13 home games in a row.
With the Panthers' loss, visitors are now 13-24 in MVC play.
A win would have meant 16 straight victories for UNI—which would have been the nation's third-longest active win streak. It would have meant another school record ranking in the polls and a more comfortable grip on first place in the MVC standings.
It would have meant national respect.
The Panthers came into Wichita with the weight of the college basketball world on its shoulders. For just a moment, all eyes were on the University of Northern Iowa Panthers. The entire country wanted to know one thing:
Is this team—from a small school in Iowa, no less—for real?
Well, scoring a season first half-low of 17 points, shooting 2-of-13 from three-point range and getting out-defended when the Panthers are supposed to be one of the top defensive teams in the conference does not bode well for maintaining a national spotlight on little ol' Cedar Falls, IA.
Are these Panthers super human? Did the team that came to play tonight look like a squad that can hold up against the country's elite programs in postseason play? No—it would be foolish to argue they did.
But let me tell you something, this team still has its heart.
Being originally from the general area of Cedar Falls, myself, I can attest to the fact that there's something special about small town colleges and their surrounding communities. This team will return home to a fan base that still believes in them and is ready to support them. That can be powerful motivation, knowing your fans—your family—is still there for you.
The Panthers will be back. They're still a game up on the Shockers with a home rematch scheduled for Feb. 3 at the McLeod Center.
Oh, yeah...they'll be back.
As for the Shockers, this is a team that has been left out of the NCAA discussion—a team that defeated Texas Tech and played a hard-fought game against now ninth-ranked Pitt.
Don't be too surprised if Wichita State stays hot down the stretch and finds a way into March Madness action.
The MVC may be down this year but its top two teams are no slouches—as proven by tonight's game. Are they at the level of college basketball's elite programs? Not a chance.
However, we all know too well that strange, sometimes miraculous, things happen in this sport.
That is, after all, what makes it so interesting to watch.