Seth Tuttle has been the catalyst driving Northern Iowa’s success, though he’s been finding out lately that he has plenty of help.
The 11th-ranked Panthers can book a spot in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game with a semifinal victory against No. 6 seed Loyola-Chicago on Saturday.
Tuttle was named the league’s player of the year after averaging 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists for the Panthers (28-3) during the regular season.
The senior big man, though, has averaged just 11.0 points while taking fewer than 10 shots in each of his last five after finishing with 10 points in a 71-46 win over 10th-seeded Bradley in Friday’s quarterfinals. Tuttle didn’t make his first field goal until 13:47 remained and he finished 3 of 9 from the floor.
“He missed a couple easy ones he’s been making all year,” coach Ben Jacobson said. “That would have (bothered) him when he was a freshman or sophomore.”
Tuttle’s first bucket sparked an 11-0 run that broke open a two-point game. Senior Nate Buss, who came in averaging 6.6 points, finished with a career-high 23 off the bench and the Panthers held a 44-21 scoring edge in the second half.
“We just picked up our intensity, we picked up our toughness,” Buss said. “I think they were kind of outworking us in the first half, but we came out with a great mindset.”
The victory marked Northern Iowa’s first in the MVC tournament since it beat Wichita State in the 2010 title game.
“We don’t talk about last year or the year before or the number of years it’s been since we won a game (in St. Louis),” Jacobson said. “Because we don’t talk about it, or I don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean the guys don’t understand it or don’t feel it.”
A win over Loyola (19-12) and a Shockers victory over Illinois State in the other semifinal would set up a third meeting for the tournament title after the conference’s top teams split their first two matchups this season.
Ramblers coach Porter Moser noted the talent gap between Northern Iowa and Wichita State and the rest of the conference after his team fell 58-39 to the Panthers in the most recent meeting Feb. 18 in Chicago. Loyola has lost three straight matchups with Northern Iowa, including a 67-58 road defeat Jan. 4.
“There’s such a winning mentality when you play those two teams,” Moser said after the second meeting. “The other team makes a run, you always just see them not panic. You see the physical competitiveness. They’re well-coached. Both teams have a lot of veterans.
“I sense, too, when I play both of those teams they’re just at a different level than everybody else.”
The Ramblers scored their fewest points of the season and shot just 39.0 percent in the last matchup, but they’ve hit 54.9 percent during a three-game winning streak after routing No. 3 seed Indiana State 81-53 in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Christian Thomas scored 16 points and Ben Richardson hit all five of his 3-point attempts to finish with 15 for Loyola, which shot 57.4 percent.
Tuttle scored just 19 total points in the two previous meetings this season, but he’s hit 8 of 12 from the field.