EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Trailing any team by 16 points in the first half would give a coach cause for concern.
Falling behind No. 23 Northern Iowa by that much is an even worse idea, given the Panthers’ ability to defend and shorten games with long possessions.
However, Evansville overcame a 28-12 deficit with a rally that could brand the Purple Aces as a dark horse in the Missouri Valley Conference this winter.
Guard D.J. Balentine scored 13 of his team-high 17 points after halftime, and the Purple Aces allowed just 19 second-half points to knock off Northern Iowa 52-49 in each team’s conference opener at the Ford Center.
“We’ve got so much respect for Northern Iowa,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “I’m sure they missed some shots they would normally make, but I thought our guys showed some grit.”
Evansville (11-2) already has almost matched last season’s win total, when it went 14-19 and allowed 72.2 points per game. More experienced and stronger physically, the Purple Aces are a much-improved team on defense and under the boards.
The Panthers (11-2) mustered only six field goals in 19 attempts after halftime.
“They did a good job amping their intensity and energy level,” Northern Iowa forward Seth Tuttle said. “We really didn’t handle it very well throughout the second half. They stepped it up, and we never got a run going.”
Tuttle’s layup with 3:51 left in the first half provided the Panthers with their 16-point advantage. At that point, Northern Iowa was 12-for-20 from the field, having connected on eight consecutive shots.
Evansville ended the half on an 8-2 run to crawl within 10 points, then gradually reeled the Panthers in after halftime while playing the visitors’ slow pace.
“I just don’t think we finished enough in the second half,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “I thought in the last 10 minutes, we executed decently and got shots we wanted, but we just didn’t make them.
“We did most of what we set out to do in the first half, and that got us out to a nice lead, but to start the second half, I didn’t feel like we got great possessions offensively.”
As the Panthers managed only six points in the second half’s first 12:16, the Purple Aces worked their way back into contention behind Balentine. The nation’s fifth-leading scorer at 22.5 points per game, Balentine scored nine in the first seven minutes of the second half.
Balentine’s two free throws with four minutes left gave Evansville its first lead of the night at 44-43. Center Egidijus Mockevicius put the Purple Aces ahead for good at 46-45 with 1:43 left, sinking two foul shots after drawing Tuttle’s fourth foul while battling for an offensive rebound.
Evansville outboarded Northern Iowa 21-11 after halftime and 36-27 for the night. Mockevicius hauled in a game-high 13, six on the offensive boards, to go along with 12 points.
“Iggy does a lot of things that show up in the stat sheet,” Simmons said of Mockevicius, a 6-foot-10 junior from Lithuania. “He does a lot of things which also don’t show up in the stats. Without him, we don’t win this game.”
After Tuttle fouled out with 45.2 seconds left on a charging call, Balentine drove for a layup and a 48-45 lead with 15.2 seconds remaining. Guard Jaylon Brown answered layups by Panthers guard Wes Washpun by sinking four foul shots in the final seven seconds.
Guard Jeremy Morgan missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer as the horn sounded. The crowd of 5,151 roared, and the Purple Aces celebrated their first win over a ranked team since beating Wichita State 71-67 on Jan. 13, 2013.
“Northern Iowa beat us pretty bad twice last year,” Balentine said. “We understand that we’ve come a long way. It’s a huge confidence-booster, starting 1-0 in conference with a win over a great team. We’re pretty excited, but we also understand we have a lot to work on.”
Tuttle tallied a game-high 18 for the Panthers, while Washpun added 11 off the bench.
NOTES: Evansville F Adam Wing (strained quad) missed his second straight game, with sophomore G Mislav Brzoja replacing him in the lineup. Brzoja scored five points. … Northern Iowa’s 33.1 bench points per game rank
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