CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Northern Iowa insisted its win over Wichita State on Wednesday night was just another game, one the surging Panthers will quickly put behind them.
The rest of the Missouri Valley knows better.
Kwadzo Ahelegbe scored 18 points, 15 in the second half, and Northern Iowa (No. 22 ESPN/USA Today, No. 24 AP) hung on to beat the Shockers 59-56 and take a commanding three-game lead atop the Missouri Valley Conference standings.
Jordan Eglseder added 15 points for the Panthers (20-2, 11-1), who avenged a 60-51 loss in Wichita on Jan. 19 and put the second-place Shockers in a hole that might be too deep to climb out of.
"I don't talk about that with our guys. I really don't," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "We talked about being tougher than we were at their place on the defensive end of the floor, being tougher on the offensive end of the floor, finishing plays."
It might have been a good thing that Jacobson didn't bring up all the benefits of a victory, because it almost didn't happen.
Wichita State (19-5, 8-4) buried consecutive 3-pointers to pull within 58-56 with 1:54 left, then got the ball back with 31 seconds left. But Toure' Murry missed a 3 from the elbow, and Clevin Hannah's desperation heave bounced off the rim.
Murry had 17 points to lead Wichita State, which came in ranked ninth in the nation in free-throw percentage but shot just 10 of 17 from the line.
"We had our chances. We just couldn't make the plays at the end, those shots at the end," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said.
It was a typical Valley slugfest, with baskets and style points in short supply. But that's exactly the kind of play the pesky Panthers excel at.
Of course, it didn't hurt that Ahelegbe shook off a terrible first half and carried the Panthers offense down the stretch.
Ahelegbe drilled a pull-up 15-footer and muscled a tough layup in traffic to put Northern Iowa ahead 44-41 with 8:34 left. Eglseder's three-point play off a steal by Ali Farokhmanesh gave the Panthers a 47-41 lead. Wichita State quickly cut it to one, but Ahelegbe followed a 3 with yet another mid-range jumper to give Northern Iowa a 53-46 lead with just under 4 minutes left.
Ahelegbe was 1 of 9 from the field in the first half but finished 8 of 18, helping rescue an offense that shot just 38 percent from the field. But Jacobson also pointed to the contributions of reserve forward Lucas O'Rear, who finished with nine rebounds -- five offensive -- and helped set the tone in the paint.
"I thought [O'Rear] was probably the difference," Jacobson said. "He's a worker. He finds a way to come up with loose balls, come up with rebounds."
Gabe Blair added 12 points for the Shockers, who fell to 5-4 on the road.
The Panthers missed 12 of their first 15 shots and fell behind by as much as 18-10. But after a hot start, Wichita State could only muster four points during a 9 1/2-minute stretch late in the first half, allowing Northern Iowa to jump ahead 25-22.
Murry and Hannah responded with 3s in the final 1:18 to give the Shockers a 28-27 halftime lead -- despite the fact that Northern Iowa outrebounded them 10-0 on the offensive glass.
The loss at Wichita State is the only hiccup in the Valley so far for the Panthers, who now seem poised to run away with the league title.
Northern Iowa hasn't been flashy -- in fact, it needed a late rally to steal a 55-54 win at Missouri State last weekend -- but its suffocating defense was once again enough to help the Panthers survive.
Northern Iowa entered play second in the nation in scoring defense at 55.1 points per game.
"We just talk about being more aggressive in everything we do," Jacobson said. "I just thought we were a much more aggressive team [Wednesday] than we were at Wichita."
Though Wichita State has rattled off one of the better starts in school history, it still lacks a signature road win. Its biggest wins to date, against Northern Iowa and Texas Tech, both came at home.
The Shockers do have a chance to finish strong, though. They play four of their final six conference games at home and have two games left against last-place Evansville.
"We're going to try and win games and do what we can do," Marshall said. "Obviously we need a lot of help at this point."
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