EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- The purple-clad fans ran onto the court at the end of the game. There weren't enough of them to say they stormed it.
Those few loyal Evansville supporters who showed up after the team weathered 17 losses in 18 games celebrated gleefully when their Purple Aces toppled Northern Iowa (No. 22 ESPN/USA Today, No. 25 AP) 55-54 on Tuesday night.
James Haarsma had 12 points and eight rebounds to help Evansville pull off one of the biggest upsets of the college basketball season.
It was the final home game for the Purple Aces, and just 4,716 showed up to watch them beat a ranked team for the first time since 2003.
Evansville coach Marty Simmons insisted he wasn't surprised by the result.
"We have such a belief in how we do things that if we do it consistently, we think we're going to have a chance, no matter who we play against," he said.
Kavon Lacey scored 11 points and Colt Ryan added 10 for Evansville (8-20, 2-15 Missouri Valley), which is in last place but had been improving. The win came two weeks after the Purple Aces beat Wichita State, which currently is in second place in the MVC. In between those victories, the Purple Aces lost to Wichita State in overtime and to Illinois-Chicago by two.
"We stayed together as a team all season, even when it's been rough, and that attitude of sticking together is beginning to show," Lacey said.
"We probably could have been more focused, yeah," Jake Koch said. "We should have been more focused."
Northern Iowa's NCAA tournament seeding likely took a severe hit, but coach Ben Jacobson said his team will recover.
"We've won a lot of basketball games this year," he said. "Regardless of a big win or a tough loss, they've been able to really get ready for the next game. We've got an experienced team, and they really take pride in being prepared."
The Panthers were without 7-foot center Jordan Eglseder, who served the last game of a three-game suspension after being arrested and charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Eglseder and his 12.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game will be back Saturday against Illinois State.
"He's a big part of what we've done all year," Jacobson said. "To have him back and available and in the lineup will be big for our team."
A 3-pointer by Ryan gave the Purple Aces a 30-26 lead. A layup by Denver Holmes pushed Evansville's lead to six and forced Northern Iowa to call a timeout 3 minutes into the second half.
The Purple Aces kept the pressure on. Ned Cox banked in a jumper as the shot clock expired to give Evansville a 39-28 lead 6 minutes into the second half.
Jake Koch went on a scoring binge to get his team back into the game. He scored nine points during an 11-1 run that cut Evansville's lead to 40-39.
Northern Iowa took the lead on two free throws by Kwadzo Ahelegbe, but Evansville quickly regained it on baskets by Haarsma and Lacey.
That counterpunch was critical for Evansville.
"It was huge," Simmons said. "Earlier in the year, we didn't show the substance to withstand something like that."
A 3-pointer by Ali Farokhmanesh cut Evansville's lead to 53-51 with 25 seconds left.
Lucas O'Rear stole the ball for Northern Iowa, but Jake Koch missed an off-balance shot in close, and Evansville got the rebound.
"In the timeout, Coach Jacobson said try to get the pass, don't foul, and try to get the turnover," Jake Koch said. "We got the off-balance pass, and Luke was there to tip it. We didn't capitalize."
Lacey made two free throws to make it 55-51. Northern Iowa's Johnny Moran made a 30-footer with 2 seconds left to make it 55-54, but the Panthers didn't foul until two-tenths of a second remained. Evansville missed two free throws, and time expired.
Jake Koch said the fact the loss came against a last-place team didn't give it extra sting.
"Losses always hurt," he said. "We just want to bounce back strong against Illinois State and get ready for the [Missouri Valley] tournament."
Jacobson answered matter-of-factly when asked if the team was worried about its NCAA tournament seed.
"We don't," he said. "We'll continue to do what we've done all year and get ready for that next game."
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