Northern Iowa became the fifth team to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament, beating Wichita State 67-52 to win their second consecutive Missouri Valley Conference tournament title. Trailing by three at the half, Ben Jacobson's Panthers outscored the Shockers 39-21 in the second half, holding Wichita State to 23.1% shooting in the final twenty minutes. Kwadzo Ahelegbe led the way with 24 points while Jake Koch added 13 off the bench. Koch's performance highlighted a solid effort from the UNI reserves, who helped spark the decisive 23-3 run.
"Our bench stepped up huge for us tonight just like they did the night before," said guard Ali Farokhmanesh. "I think our bench was the biggest difference in that stretch and then probably in the entire game overall." Where will the Panthers be seeded? Many projections have them looking at an eight or nine seed, and while that may be a bit low in regards to UNI's accomplishments no one's exactly lining up to play this team either. Northern Iowa will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
As for Monday four tournament bids will be decided with the game having the most riding on it being the WCC final between Gonzaga and Saint Mary's out in Las Vegas. Mark Few's Bulldogs are safely in the field but a win would help their case in regards to playing the first two rounds at Spokane Arena. But that doesn't compare to the "pressure" that Randy Bennett's Gaels have to deal with. Last year Saint Mary's entered the final in a similar situation, feeling alright about their chances of earning an at-large berth provided Patty Mills be healthy enough to make a difference.
But he struggled and Gonzaga rolled, with the final result being a trip to the NIT instead. No such health concerns this time around although Omar Samhan did tweak his ankle late in the first half of their win over Portland; he played the second half with no trouble. Gonzaga won both regular season meetings and rebounding was a major factor in the first meeting. The Bulldogs out-rebounded the Gaels 45-27, winning 89-82 in Moraga. On a night that saw Robert Sacre grab just six rebounds Steven Gray and Elias Harris combined for 27; the Saint Mary's wings have a hard time rebounding at a rate similar to what these two can produce.
The second contest saw Saint Mary's come unglued to the tune of seventeen turnovers and 37.3% shooting from the field as they fell 80-61 in Spokane. Simply put Gonzaga has a number of weapons both in the starting lineup and on the bench; Saint Mary's will need big night from Samhan and Matthew Dellavedova as well as another player or two if they're to win the crown. At the least Saint Mary's needs to keep this close and play well; with six days between the final and Selection Sunday the worst final statement to make is to be blown out on national television.
As for the other three title games on tap, Siena may be under the most pressure to take care of business. The Saints have won 37 straight on the Times Union Center floor and will take on Fairfield in the MAAC title game, with the Stags having played them tougher than any other MAAC opponent this season. Siena won the second meeting (February 8th) by a 69-67 final as Fairfield outscored them 39-33 in the second half. The difference: turnover margin. The Stags turned the ball over fifteen times to the Saints' ten, and this will be a key Monday night as well.
Freshman point guard Derek Needham was the best rookie in the MAAC but he'll be going up a seasoned veteran in senior Ronald Moore. Fairfield will also need Anthony Johnson to stay out of foul trouble; he picked up three in the first half of their win over Niagara but Ryan Olander stepped up off the bench to keep the Stags afloat. They'll need that and then some in order to win in front of what will be a raucous crowd.
7p ESPN CAA Final: William & Mary vs. Old Dominion
7p ESPN2 MAAC Final: Fairfield vs. Siena
9p ESPN WCC Final: Saint Mary's vs. Gonzaga
9p ESPN2 SoCon Final: Appalachian St vs. Wofford
7p Summit Semi: IFPW vs. Oakland
9:30p Summit Semi: Oral Roberts vs. IUPUI
7p Sun Belt Semi: Western Kentucky vs. Troy
9:30p Denver vs. North Texas
Old Dominion over William & Mary: This is an intriguing matchup for the CAA title in Richmond; William & Mary is back playing the way they did early in the season when they beat the likes of Wake Forest and Maryland. But while Tony Shaver's club is playing well they don't have the size inside to match up with ODU's deeper frontcourt. The Monarchs won both meetings, including a 61-42 win at home in early February that saw ODU kill the Tribe on the boards 48-25. Danny Sumner and company can ill-afford for that to happen again if they're to win the battle of the 757. The rebounding discrepancy won't be as extreme but ODU wins by eight.