Northern Iowa defeats Drake, clinches share of MVC crown

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh and Jordan Eglseder played games of H-O-R-S-E against each other all the time.

The 7-foot Eglseder said he can never beat his sharpshooting teammate. With the game on the line at Drake Wednesday, Farokhmanesh showed why Eglseder has so much trouble.

Adam Koch scored 12 points and Farokhmanesh buried a pair of long 3s to beat the shot clock in crunch time as Northern Iowa (No. 18 ESPN USA/Today, No. 19 AP) clinched at least a share of the Missouri Valley title with a 57-48 win over the Bulldogs.

Farokhmanesh and Johnny Moran each added 10 for the Panthers (22-2, 13-1), who can lock up the top seed for next month's conference tournament with a win at Bradley on Saturday.

Northern Iowa fell behind by 3 with 6:36 left before putting the game out of reach with a 15-0 run. Farokhmanesh keyed the spurt with his two deep 3s, and Lucas O'Rear's layup with 2:02 left put the Panthers ahead 55-45.

Farokhmanesh buried a 26-footer to push Northern Iowa's lead to 50-45 with 4:24 left, and followed with a 29-footer with 2:51 left that took the air out of Drake's second sellout crowd of the season.

"He always makes them. As for the clutchness, I mean, that's just how he is. He always hits big shots for us," Eglseder said of Farokhmanesh.

Ryan Wedel and Josh Young each had 11 to lead Drake (11-15, 6-8), which lost at home for the first time in five games and fell to 0-9 when trailing at halftime.

The young Bulldogs gave the Valley's best team their best shot, but the more experienced Panthers made all the big plays down the stretch in winning their sixth straight game.

Seth VanDeest, Drake's rail-thin freshman center, stuffed Eglseder's layup try with both hands, then hit a turnaround jumper on the other end to bring the Bulldogs within 36-34 with 12:07 left. Wedel followed with a 3 that put the Bulldogs ahead for the first time since the opening minutes.

Moran's 3 made it 42-42 with 8:01 to go, though, and Koch's 3 put the Panthers ahead 47-45.

O'Rear, Northern Iowa's sparkplug forward, then drew a charge on VanDeest that helped set the stage for Farokhmanesh's fireworks.

O'Rear once again helped set the tone for Panthers strong defense. Drake was outscored 26-6 in the paint, 22-2 on second-chance points and had just one field goal in the final 6:36 -- a meaningless 3 with 23 seconds left.

"He's playing at a very high level," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said of O'Rear. "His energy and his toughness is something that our basketball team really feeds off of."

The Panthers didn't hit a 3 in the first half, but they shot 12 of 17 inside the arc in building a 28-24 halftime lead. Northern Iowa outscored Drake 20-4 in the paint in the opening half -- a trend that would continue after the break.

Though Northern Iowa hasn't lost since Jan. 19, its last three wins came by a total of just seven points. The Panthers needed a monster effort from Koch down the stretch to escape with a 55-52 home win over Southern Illinois on Saturday, as Koch scored 11 straight points to help wipe out a five-point deficit.

By Northern Iowa's recent standards, this one was a cake walk.

"We'd rather not have it be that type of situation where we need to make a lot of plays at the end to win games, but I guess it's something that we're comfortable doing," Koch said. "We just do a good job of staying levelheaded and knowing that if we stay fundamentally sound and focused we'll make some plays."

Drake was in Northern Iowa's position just two years ago, rolling toward the Valley crown and an eventual No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. But second-year coach Mark Phelps has 11 first-year players, the most in the Valley, and it's shown in Drake's up-and-down play. The Bulldogs have lost four of their past five after a five-game winning streak.

Young starred on that memorable 2008 team, and he knows how to spot a veteran winner like these Panthers when he sees one.

"You noticed down the stretch. They've been their before," Young said. "They really were calm and collected and really poised about their plays, and made huge plays down the stretch. We, on the other hand, weren't able to do that."