The 28-4 Northern Iowa Panthers are coming off their second straight Missouri Valley Conference title and a Missouri Valley tournament championship after dropping the 25-9 Wichita State Shockers 67-52 on Sunday afternoon.
The Panthers have the nation's second-ranked defense and put it on display Sunday.
Both teams changed leads multiple times before the stingy Panther defense stepped it up to a whole new level. They held the Shockers without a field goal for more than 12 minutes in the second half during a 23-3 run that put the game away.
For the sixth time in school history, Northern Iowa is headed to the big dance. The Panthers made the tournament last season as a 12 seed. Northern Iowa came close to pulling the famous 12 over 5 upset in the first round but ended up losing to a very talented Purdue team 61-56.
Last season, just making the tournament was a success, but expectations for this season's team were set much higher. With every player returning for the Panthers from last year's tournament team and the addition of a few talented freshmen, just making the tournament was no longer the goal.
The Panthers have lived up to every expectation so far this season. Besides winning the conference title for a second straight year and the conference tournament title, they also set a school record for wins at 28 and a record for conference wins at 15.
Northern Iowa is coached by Ben Jacobson, who was named Missouri Valley Coach of the Year for the second year in a row. It is just the fifth time in the history of the conference that a coach has won the award in back-to-back years. Jacobson lead the Panthers to their highest ever national ranking, 18th, and kept them in the top 25 for six straight weeks.
The Panthers are the ultimate example of a team, and it doesn't just show on the defensive end. Senior forward Adam Koch was named the Larry Bird Missouri Valley Player of the Year this season. Koch did not score a single point in Northern Iowa's 15-point tournament championship win. The Panthers like to roll 10 deep during games, and Coach Jacobson has complete confidence in every one of them.
Koch isn't the only Panther to receive awards this season. For the second straight year, UNI's Lucas O'Rear received the "Sixth Man Award." Seven-foot senior center Jordan Eglseder was named to the Missouri Valley Conference all-second team. Honorable mentions included starting guards Ali Farokhmanesh and Kwadzo Ahelegbe.
Ahelegbe, a junior, led the Panthers in their victory over the Shockers Sunday, when he scored a game-high 24 points. He was named the tournament's most outstanding player.
The Panthers are a veteran team that has been challenged all season long. For the most part they have overcome every challenge they have faced. Eight of the 10 players that play have NCAA tournament experience. The team has shown poise and discipline all season long.
Behind loads of experience, tremendous depth, talent, and an extremely unselfish style of play, this is one team you do not want to see come tournament time. Watch for the Panthers to prowl their way to the Sweet 16.