Fifth-seeded Northern Iowa keeps Larry Nance Jr. in check for most of the game and beats 12th-seeded Wyoming, 71-54, to advance to the round of 32 to face either Louisville or UC Irvine.
Dormant for so long, Larry Nance Jr. came alive, and with him KeyArena.
Nance, Wyoming’s best player, had been held without a field goal — without even a good look at the basket — in the first 25 minutes of the Cowboys’ first NCAA tournament game in 13 years. Then, in a sudden burst, he was back — and so were the Cowboys, who cut Northern Iowa’s 21-point lead down to seven midway through the second half.
The hearty Wyoming fans in gold were on their feet, the packed crowd at KeyArena buzzing for an upset.
Except, sorry, fifth-seeded Northern Iowa didn’t want any part of that. Not just yet, anyway. Come Sunday, though, the Panthers look poised for a small upset of their own.
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In their methodical manner, the Panthers used their deep bench to put away No. 12 Wyoming, 71-54, in a subregional game Friday morning, the first NCAA tournament game at KeyArena since 2004.
“That was a great basketball game,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “I love being part of it.”
Five years ago, in their last appearance in the NCAA tournament, Jacobson’s Panthers upset Kansas to earn a trip to the Sweet 16. On Sunday at KeyArena, Northern Iowa (31-3) will get that chance again in a round-of-32 matchup against fourth-seeded Louisville.
It was Wyoming (25-10), the surprising Mountain West Conference tournament champion, looking to spoil some brackets against Northern Iowa, considered by some an outside-the-box Final Four contender.
Down 21 with 15:28 left, the Cowboys charged back with an 18-4 run over the next five minutes to get to 50-43. During that run, Nance, a 6-foot-8 senior, scored 12 of his team-high 16 points in a 2½-minute stretch, showing off his impressive versatility with two dunks, two three-pointers and a tip-in.
All that after Nance had been bottled up early by a Northern Iowa scoring defense ranked No. 4 in the nation. In the first half, Nance was double-teamed every time he touched the ball anywhere near the basket, and he finished the half with more fouls (2) and more turnovers (3) than shot attempts (1) as the Panthers built a 35-24 lead at the break.
“When he caught it, we were going to go and double him and see if we couldn’t get it out of his hands,” Jacobson said.
When Nance heated up, the Panthers responded in a hurry.
With Northern Iowa’s lead down to seven, reserve guard Paul Jesperson hit a three-pointer on the Panthers’ next possession to push the lead back to double digits. The Cowboys’ best burst had passed, and the Panthers controlled the pace the rest of the way.
Jesperson finished with 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting and was part of a UNI bench that outscored Wyoming’s subs 41-2. Nine players played at least 16 minutes for the Panthers, and their reserves shot a combined 14 of 24 (.583) from the field.
“The important thing is that we’ve got 10 guys that are capable of really helping our team every time they step on the floor,” said UNI’s standout forward, Seth Tuttle, who had 14 points and nine rebounds.
Figure the Panthers will need to dig deep again to beat Louisville on Sunday.