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Jeremiah Davis | The Gazette | December 20, 2015

Northern Iowa rises to the occasion against top-ranked teams

  Northern Iowa celebrates after knocking off Iowa State. It is the second top-five win for the Panthers.

DES MOINES -- Before the Big Four Classic, Northern Iowa Coach Ben Jacobson said the value of his team's belief in its talent was incalculable.

After the Big Four Classic, Jacobson and the Panthers could use "2-0" as the answer to how valuable it is.

For the second time this season, UNI (7-3) got a win against a top-five team in the nation Saturday night, 81-79 against No. 5 Iowa State. The Panthers took the Cyclones' best shot in two or three runs to tie the game in the second half, and turned away another one of the best teams in college basketball.

The power of belief personified, Jacobson said.

"Guys have to believe in their program and believe in who they are. There's no question. So when you do come into a stretch against a team like this and they get going, there's not a lot of teams that can slow them down once they get started," Jacobson said. "At some point we had to stand up and get a couple stops. Whether they were thinking about it at that time or not, and I doubt they were thinking about it then, it shows up. They believe in what we're doing, and most importantly, they believe in each other."

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In less than a month, the Panthers rose to the occasion against No. 1 and No. 5.

That happens, they said, because no one on the team seems to be afraid of these moments. Whether it's a comeback at home against UNC or withstanding as intense of pressure as Iowa State can give, UNI answered.

The Panthers entered Saturday night's game with tremendous confidence, and found they were right to believe in themselves.

Again.

"Everybody on our team is fearless. That's a big part of it," said Paul Jesperson, who had 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting. "Nobody is going to back down from anyone we play, whether they're ranked No. 1 in the country or we're going to play in a tough environment. Nobody is afraid of any team we're going to play. That goes a long way when you're on the road and playing a very talented team like Iowa State."

Oh, and just like Nov. 21 against the Tar Heels, a certain point guard was the engine that drove the bus at a raucous Wells Fargo Arena.

Wes Washpun acknowledged he had his best game against UNC. He needed an amendment Saturday after 28 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds -- making career-highs in the first two categories. He controlled nearly every aspect of UNI's game -- limiting Monte Morris to eight points and six assists on the defensive end -- and iced the win at the free throw line at the end.

When asked what kind of message he sent -- again -- all Washpun would give was a wide smile.

"I don't know. I don't know if it's the energy in the buildings or just knowing that I'm going to have a heck of a matchup with a heck of a team. But I always seem to turn it up a little bit in these situations," Washpun said. "To be honest, I don't feel like I sent a message either way. I'm just glad me and my teammates could get this win against a top-five team in the country.

"We just really wanted to prove we can play with anybody. I know Coach believes it and the guys in the locker room believe it as well. No matter what game we're in, we're never out of it no matter the opponent."

UNI saved both of its best performances this season for its two biggest games.

While Jacobson didn't love everything about the performance, he did love that rising to the occasion seems to be the personality of this team. With such a daunting non-conference schedule and Missouri Valley Conference play still ahead, that goes a long way, too.

"From my standpoint, that's something I really like from our guys. I like to see the ability to rise to the occasion," Jacobson said. "I'd like to see us get more consistent with what we're doing -- defensively and rebounding -- and keep bringing our team along. We've got a lot ahead of us, still. We can get a lot better.

"But sometimes as an individual and sometimes as a team, you don't necessarily have the ability to rise up and do what we did tonight. The guys on this team do, and that says a lot about them."

Jacobson is now 7-2 against Iowa State. This win being the second in one season against a top-five team makes that the fifth such situation for an MVC team in the conference's 109-year history, and the first time it's happened since 1965-66.

Those things happen with talented teams, yes. But they also happen because the players and coaches believed they could happen.

"It's extra special. We played these guys a couple years ago and feel like we let one get away there. Most of the guys who went through it knew we didn't want to let that happen again," Washpun said. "There are a lot of good teams in the country, and this team is one of them. North Carolina is especially one of them, too. But you've just got to believe in your preparation and believe you can make games like this happen and make wins like this happen. That's the biggest deal."

This article was written by Jeremiah Davis from The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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