Tiny Dancers: Northern Iowa wins the Valley on amazing buzzer-beater

THIS IS MARCH.

Northern Iowa is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year thanks to a buzzer-beating shot from senior striker Wes Washpun that amazingly bounced four feet off the back of the rim — above the top of the backboard! — and fell in.

Northern Iowa 56, Evansville 54.

The Panthers are dancin’.

That is an all-time conference tournament highlight. Arch Madness never, ever disappoints, and what an amazing tournament final we were treated to on Sunday. Evansville rallied from a 17-point deficit with a 30-12 run to take a 48-47 lead with less than four minutes to go.

Washpun finished with 18 points, five rebounds and three assists, while his teammate, Klint Carlson, had 17 points. It’s UNI’s second straight MVC title and its fourth in the past eight seasons. Although the program has really, really good wins this year (North Carolina and Iowa State), it took on too many losses to truly be considered for at-large status.

So UNI had life with its defeat of top-seeded Wichita State on Saturday. Then it scraped by an Evansville team that’s been really good in the league for the past four years and has one of the best players in Valley history in D.J. Balentine, who put up 20 points in the final game of his MVC career. The Purple Aces have not been to the NCAAs since 1999.

The Panthers are now the third team in this year’s field of 68, joining Austin Peay and Yale. They’ve won 12 of their past 13 games and will absolutely an upset-special pick for many a person in your tourney pool. Ben Jacobson’s team made good by winning three games in three days and leaving no doubt for the selection committee.

Player to watch: It’s most definitely Washpun (14.2 ppg, 5.3 apg, 4.0 rpg), who’s one of the shiftiest guards in America. It’s very hard to keep him out of the lane, and as America saw on Sunday, he’s unafraid to take big, tough shots. Plus, did you see this sickness from earlier in the game? I can’t wait to watch Washpun get another crack at tournament glory next week.

What a thrill ride that UNI ending was. I’m still rattled in a beautiful way by it. This is how we stretch out our nerves in muscles in advance of the NCAAs. Seriously let’s watch this again and again and again.

The Vitals:

    • Record: 22-12 overall, 11-7 in the Missouri Valley
    • Most recent tournament appearance: 2015 (Reached the Round of 32 as a No. 5 seed; defeated Wyoming, then fell to No. 4 Louisville 66-53)
    • Jerry Palm predicts: 13 seed
    • RPI: 79
    • KenPom ranking: 81
    • Sagarin ranking: 74
    • Best wins: North Carolina, Iowa State, Wichita State (2x), Stephen F. Austin
    • Worst losses: Loyola-Chicago (2x), Colorado State, Missouri State
    • Notable stat: 62.9: The number of possessions per game Northern Iowa plays, which is very slow. Like, fifth-slowest-in-the-nation slow. UNI wants to beat you 63-59, and is fine with taking its chance in close games. It’s what Jacobson is comfortable with. For the most part, it’s worked to his advantage in recent years. And guess what? It means UNI has a solid shot at being in another buzzer-beating scenario come next Thursday or Friday.

Closing quip: This is a legitimately dangerous team with second-weekend potential. Washpun, Jeremy Morgan, Paul Jesperson and Matt Bohannon. Those are the names to know. UNI’s defensive free-throw rate is 23.6 percent, which is the lowest in America. In a sentence: It means UNI is better at not fouling than just about anyone, and that will absolutely mean something in the NCAA Tournament. This team is going to be a very popular upset pick, no matter who it faces. It’s probably going to get a 13 seed, but in terms of its capabilities, it’s better suited to a 6/11 or 7/10 matchup.

Wes Washpun hit one of the instantly legendary shots in Missouri Valley history on Sunday. (USATSI)

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