It took all season, but No. 11 Wichita State finally got itself a signature win.
The Shockers entered Saturday 26-3 on the year and with six wins against KenPom top 100 teams, but not a single win over anyone in the top 50. Their best victory had been a one-point home victory over Alabama (No. 56 in KenPom) in December.
Wichita State played a pretty decent non-conference schedule, the 35th-toughest in the country according to KenPom, but came up just short in its best shot at a big win, a 69-68 overtime defeat to Utah that snapped its regular season winning streak at 35 games.
Since then, the Shockers also came up empty in their only other chance at a marquee win, a 70-54 road loss to this Northern Iowa squad in January. Sitting at No. 11 in the country, WSU is in good shape heading into Selection Sunday, but the implications of Saturday's rematch were clear.
Win, and take the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title and show you're capable of going on another serious run in the NCAA tourney. Lose, and face the all-too familiar questioning of your credibility as a mid-major which would be 0-3 against teams currently in the AP top 25.
Wichita State opted for the former. And not only did the Shockers pick up a much-needed signature win in the last game of the regular season, they did it convincingly.
After a tightly contested opening few minutes, WSU pulled away late in the first half to build a 38-26 lead going into the locker room. The game seemed comfortably in hand after the Shockers took an 18-point lead just minutes into the second stanza, but the Panthers stormed a furious comeback to cut the deficit to four with 7:29 remaining.
Wichita State didn't panic in front of its home crowd and weathered the storm thanks to back-to-back threes by junior guard Evan Wessel and Fred VanVleet.
Senior Tekele Cotton put the finishing touches on the 74-60 win with a windmill dunk in the final 80 seconds. The victory earned Wichita State its 9th Missouri Valley Conference title and third in the last four years.
One of the biggest differences between Saturday's game and the first bout between these schools was the play of Panthers senior forward Seth Tuttle. Tuttle has the third-best player efficiency rating in the nation and burned WSU for a career-high 29 points in January, but scored just a shade over his season average with 16 points on Saturday. More importantly, he was held to only six points in the first half when Wichita State took early control of the game.
Tuttle was still his highly efficient self—he shot 6-for-8 from the floor, corralled seven rebounds and dished out six assists—but he was the only Panther to score in double-figures.
Wichita State had a much more balanced offense, with all five of its starters recording 10 or more points. Junior guard Ron Baker led the way with 17 points and seven assists.
The loss snapped a 16-game winning streak by the Panthers, whose defense gave up 20 more points than its season average of 53 1/2. Northern Iowa still owns the win over Wichita State at home, but the defeat puts a damper on its recent emergence and ensures its top 10 appearance in the AP poll will be short-lived, at least for now.
Northern Iowa heads into the MVC tournament at 27-3 (16-2 MVC), while the Shockers improve to 27-3 (17-1 MVC). Round three between these teams could become a reality at Arch Madness in St. Louis, and if so, a lot would be on the line for both teams in terms of Selection Sunday seeding.