With his team's NCAA Tournament fate hanging in the balance, Northern Iowa's Wes Washpun hit the defining shot of college basketball's 2016 postseason to date.
After a furious comeback by Evansville and a back-and-forth final two minutes had left the game tied at 54, the senior guard found himself with the ball in his hands and an opportunity to give his team its second straight Missouri Valley Tournament championship. He did not disappoint.
Washpun, a key player for UNI in each of the past two seasons who assumed a much larger offensive role as a senior, finished with a team-high 18 points and was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. Sophomore forward Klint Carlson chipped in 17 points, nearly tripling his season average of 6.6.
The first half of the game was dominated by fourth-seeded Northern Iowa, which carried a 32-18 lead over No. 2 seed Evansville into the locker room. After the break, D.J. Balentine -- the leading scorer in the Missouri Valley and the leading active scorer in all of college basketball -- went to work.
The Purple Aces star gave his team the lead for the first time since the opening seconds with a layup at the 3:39 mark that made the score 48-47 in favor of the better seed. The lead then changed hands twice more before Balentine's basket with 25 seconds left tied the score at 54 and set the stage for Washpun's heroics. Balentine finished with a game-high 20 points and was named to the All-Tournament team.
The win marks the second straight "Arch Madness" championship for Northern Iowa, and their fifth Missouri Valley Tournament title overall. Led by All-American Seth Tuttle, Ben Jacobson's team was a No. 5 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament, where they defeated Wyoming before falling to fourth-seeded Louisville in the round of 32. Evansville, which fell to 25-9 on the season, had been seeking to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999.
Perhaps no team that hears its name called on Selection Sunday will have had a more bizarre road to the NCAA Tournament than the Panthers. During the non-conference portion of the season, UNI stunned a pair of top-ranked teams in No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Iowa State, but also dropped dropped games to the pedestrian quartet of Colorado State, New Mexico, Richmond and BYU.
The Jekyll and Hyde act continued into Missouri Valley play, where Northern Iowa dropped six of its first eight games, including a run of three straight losses by 10 points or more. The proverbial light switch was then flipped back on in late January, and the Panthers entered the postseason having won nine of their last 10 games, including a win at Wichita State that ended the nation's longest home court winning streak at 43 games. Northern Iowa was tasked with taking down Wichita State again in Saturday's first semifinal, a task it completed with a 67-62 win in overtime.
Northern Iowa is 4-7 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, and has won at least one game in each of its last two appearances in the big dance.