March 8, 2009

ST. LOUIS (AP) -Ali Farokhmanesh scored eight of Northern Iowa's 12 points in overtime, helping the top seed overcome a big finish from Osiris Eldridge in a 60-57 victory over Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game Sunday.

Kwadzo Ahelegbe added 17 points, hitting the go-ahead free throws with 16 seconds left in OT for Northern Iowa (23-10), which earned the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Panthers, who tied for the regular-season title, matched a school record for victories while earning their first NCAA bid since 2004.

Eldridge had 21 points and hit five 3-pointers after a scoreless first half, but he missed a long 3-point attempt at the end of regulation and another at the end of overtime.

Northern Iowa was 3-0 against Illinois State (24-9) this season, with another victory in double-overtime and all three decided by a total of nine points.

Like Eldridge, Farokhmanesh was scoreless in the first half. He finished with 13 points while going 3-for-4 from 3-point range, hitting two from long range in overtime.

Northern Iowa had a 12-point lead in the first half before Illinois State rallied behind Eldridge's shooting. Illinois State shot 23 percent in the first half and 30.2 percent overall.

Eldridge missed his first six shots before heating up with six in a row, including a pair of 3-pointers from well beyond the line. Coach Tim Jankovich wore a big grin after Eldridge's 3-pointer from the deep corner while well covered put Illinois State in front 43-40 for the first time since the game's first basket.

The teams combined for only four points in the final 4 1/2 minutes of regulation, with a pair of free throws by Lucas O'Rear tying it at 48 and Eldridge throwing up an air ball with 2 seconds to go.

Ahelegbe scored 10 of Northern Iowa's first 12 points, but his two free throws in overtime were his first points since the 16:39 mark of the second half. Northern Iowa led 27-15 before missing its final six shots of the half, and led 27-19 at the break.

Eldridge and Oguchi, a combined 10-for-13 from 3-point range in a semifinal blowout of Creighton, were 1-for-8 with five points in the first half.