When Ben Jacobson arrived at breakfast Friday morning, the first thing he heard was laughter coming from his Northern Iowa players.
The Panthers were loose and comfortable three hours before taking the court, and just as calm later when Wyoming was trying to complete a huge comeback.
Northern Iowa had no interest in being the latest No. 5 seed to be upset by a 12th seed.
Paul Jesperson led five Northern Iowa players in double figures with 16 points, Seth Tuttle added 14 and the Panthers held off Wyoming’s comeback for a 71-54 victory in an East Region matchup on Friday.
The Panthers (31-3) built a 21-point lead after scoring 11 of the first 12 points to start the second half. That huge lead was whittled to seven points twice but the Cowboys could get no closer. Wes Washpun scored eight of his 10 points in the final 9 minutes to help the Panthers advance.
“It’s the personality of this team. They have taken ownership of being who they are,” Jacobson said. “And being relaxed, being loose is a big part of who they are. They have combined that with being really tough and really competitive.”
Back in the tournament for the first time since their surprising run to the Sweet 16 in 2010, the champs of the Missouri Valley Conference played confident and physical, punishing the Cowboys on the inside and hitting clutch shots from the perimeter when needed.
Northern Iowa won for the 20th time in the past 21 games.
The Panthers were never rushed. They defended with purpose and aggressiveness but were never frantic. They handled the pressure put forth by Wyoming with deliberateness. And when it came time for an important basket, Northern Iowa ran its offense with precision until the shot it wanted became available.
“It was a pretty calm thing,” Jesperson said. “We had (come) out of the timeout at one point when it was close and we just said to each other, `Listen, it’s close, we’re going to remain calm, let’s just do what we’ve done all year, and that’s get stops, make open shots, play through Seth.’ I thought we did a great job of that late.”
Tuttle, the player of the year in the Valley, took a backseat to his teammates in the second half with Washpun, Jesperson and Nate Buss hitting key shots to slow Wyoming’s charge. Buss finished with 14 points, while Deon Mitchell added 10.
Larry Nance Jr. led Wyoming (25-10) with 16 points, but was mostly invisible in the first half. Nance had one point and one shot in the first half before coming alive in the second half to try and lead Wyoming’s comeback bid.
Charles Hankerson Jr. scored 15 points for Wyoming, the surprise champs of the Mountain West Conference Tournament. The Cowboys knocked off top-seed Boise State in the semifinals before outlasting San Diego State to earn their first NCAA appearance since 2002.
“This is a really, really good team, a really well-coached team, and an ultra-disciplined team,” Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt said. “When we did cut it to seven, there was very little rattle by them.”
Nance was the leader of the Cowboys’ late-season run, but he was held in check for the first 25 minutes. Northern Iowa aggressively doubled the Wyoming star anytime he caught the ball in scoring position, forcing him to pass. The only reason Wyoming was within 11 at halftime was the unlikely 12 points from Hankerson, all on 3s.
Nance’s dunk with 15 minutes left was his first basket and the start of Wyoming’s run that turned a blowout into a tense final 10 minutes. Nance knocked down two 3s and added two tip-ins and the Northern Iowa lead was down to 13 with 12:15 remaining. Riley Grabau and Hankerson added 3s and the deficit was 50-43, the closest Wyoming had been since the opening minutes.
Jesperson hit his second 3-pointer of the half and Washpun’s jumper pushed the lead to 12, but the Cowboys kept coming. Grabau rattled in another 3 but Derek Cooke Jr. missed two free throws that could have cut the deficit to seven. Washpun scored four straight points and Buss’ 3-pointer with 4:49 left gave the Panthers a 62-48 lead.
“When they made their run; we just stayed calm and executed our stuff and were able to come through,” Washpun said.