NORMAL, Ill. — Nate Buss started the comeback with a 3-pointer from the right corner.
He ended it in the same spot.
The Northern Iowa reserve forward swished a 21-footer with 5.2 seconds left Sunday, capping the 20th-ranked Panthers’ improbable rally from a 12-point second-half deficit as they escaped Redbird Arena with a 54-53 Missouri Valley Conference win over Illinois State.
“I felt like I was open, so I put it up,” the 6-foot-9 senior said of his winning shot. “That’s a shot I’ve taken 1,000 times in practice. We work on that situation every single day in practice.”
After Redbirds guard Daishon Knight missed the front end of a one-and-one with 14.5 seconds left, Northern Iowa forward Seth Tuttle grabbed the last of his 10 rebounds. Reserve guard Wes Washpun pushed the ball down the court’s middle and found Buss for the game-winner.
Panthers coach Ben Jacobson eschewed a timeout in a spot where some coaches would ask for one in order to set up a play.
“We had one timeout left, but I told Wes what I wanted, and he told the guys what I wanted,” Jacobson said. “It helps having those juniors and seniors out there.”
Knight covered the length of the court on Illinois State’s last possession, but his twisting layup under duress hit the front rim and caromed off as time expired. Redbirds coach Dan Muller charged the floor, gesturing at the officials for a foul call.
Meanwhile, the Panthers (18-2, 7-1 MVC) chest-bumped and celebrated their seventh consecutive win, the product of a game-ending 20-7 run.
“Tough loss for the guys,” Muller said. “I really hurt for them.”
Although the Redbirds (12-8, 4-4) made just 21 of 61 field-goal tries, they bothered the Panthers with quickness all day, getting to the bucket with consistency and also forcing 16 turnovers.
The Redbirds’ one potent offensive stretch looked as if it would decide the game. Trailing 31-26 with 16:33 left after Tuttle hit a leaning shot off the glass, Illinois State suddenly exploded for a 20-3 spurt, capping it with Knight’s put-back for a 46-34 advantage at the 10:49 mark.
Following Buss’ first 3-pointer, Jacobson called timeout and made a major adjustment. A coach who prefers man-to-man defense, Jacobson opted for a 3-2 zone with 6-foot-5 guard Jeremy Morgan at the top.
With Morgan’s length disrupting the small Redbirds guards on the perimeter, Illinois State fanned on eight straight possessions while Northern Iowa chipped away. When forward Marvin Singleton canned a layup with 6:55 remaining, the Panthers trailed by only 46-45.
Jacobson said Northern Iowa hadn’t played a possession of zone in conference action.
“I should have done a better job of helping the guys get better shots against their zone,” Muller said. “We hadn’t seen that zone from them at all.”
Singleton’s first 3-pointer of the season — from the same spot where Buss connected for his two — gave Northern Iowa a 49-48 lead with 2:55 remaining. Redbirds reserve guard Bobby Hunter stroked a 3-pointer at 2:25, but Tuttle tallied the last of his game-high 21 points on a layup with 2:07 to play for a 51-51 tie.
Guard Paris Lee canned a tough runner from the right side with 26.7 seconds left to give Illinois State a two-point lead. When Knight rebounded Morgan’s miss on an open 3-pointer and was fouled, the 84.1 percent free-throw shooter had a chance to wrap it up.
Instead, Knight couldn’t convert, and Buss finished off the rally.
“When we were down by (12), I saw no fear in the guys’ eyes,” Tuttle said. “It was just on to the next play. We don’t pride ourselves as being a zone defensive team, but when it’s working, we’re going to stick with it.”
Hunter led the Redbirds with 13 points. Lee and center Reggie Lynch finished with 12 apiece.
NOTES: Northern Iowa F Seth Tuttle is on the Lou Henson Award’s midseason watch list, released Wednesday by collegeinsider.com and given to the mid-major player of the year. Tuttle is one of six players to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists and blocked shots. … Illinois State G Paris Lee (knee) returned to the lineup after missing Tuesday night’s win at Drake. Lee started the first 51
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