SEATTLE (AP) — Seth Tuttle, Paul Jesperson and Northern Iowa showed no interest in being the recipient of the seemingly annual No. 5 seed getting upset by a 12th seed, even if Wyoming made the final few minutes a little uncomfortable for the Panthers.
Jesperson led five Northern Iowa players in double figures with 16 points, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nance was the leader of the Cowboys’ late-season run, but he was held in check for the first 25 minutes. Northern Iowa made Nance disappear. They 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 didn’t make his first basket until the 15-minute mark of the second half on a dunk and that was 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.
Wyoming: The Cowboys had won at least one game in the NCAAs in four of their previous five tournament appearances.
Northern Iowa: The Panthers won their first tournament game since their upset of No. 1 seed Kansas in the round of 32 in 2010. … The 31 wins are a new school record for a season.
Wyoming: Season over.
Northern Iowa: The Panthers face either No. 4 seed Louisville or 13th-seeded UC Irvine on Sunday.
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