CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — The hugs and celebration started with a little more than a minute left.
Dan Muller began taking out his Illinois State regulars and they embraced, smiled and laughed with everyone on the Redbird bench, from the coaches to the managers.
When the horn sounded and ISU's convincing 63-42 victory over Northern Iowa was official Saturday afternoon at the McLeod Center, the Redbirds slapped hands with those behind their bench before gathering for a postgame TV interview. Then came the team photo that ended a 19-year wait.
Missouri Valley Conference champions.
How does it sound, Keyshawn Evans?
“I like that,” said Redbird sophomore.
ISU earned a share of its first MVC title since 1998 with a devastating performance in the final 10 minutes. The Redbirds improved to 25-5, tying the school record for wins set in the 1997-98 season, and finished a program-best 17-1 in the MVC. That tied Wichita State, which beat Missouri State, 86-67, earlier Saturday, for the title.
“It's hard to explain,” said ISU senior Paris Lee, who was serenaded with chants of “MVP! MVP!” by his teammates. “I almost shed some tears, man, but we're not done yet so I'm not going to start the crying yet.”
Because ISU and Wichita State split their season series, the Redbirds will be the No. 1 seed in the MVC Tournament beginning Friday based on a better RPI than the Shockers on Sunday morning.
ISU will play in Friday's 12:05 p.m. quarterfinal game at Scottrade Center in St. Louis against the winner of Thursday's play-in game between No. 8 seed Evansville and No. 9 Indiana State.
“We have a big week ahead of us, but this team is leaving a legacy. I'll let them celebrate as long as they want,” said Muller, the Redbirds' fifth-year coach who played on ISU's back-to-back MVC champions in 1997-98. “I think they know. I don't have to worry about that too much. We have bigger things in sight than to be fat and happy. It's important to me that they enjoy this.”
UNI (14-15, 9-9), which was 10-0 against the Redbirds in the McLeod Center and hadn't lost to ISU in Cedar Falls since 2004, was on the verge of ruining the party midway through the second half.
The Panthers used a 6-0 run to cut ISU's lead to 42-38. The crowd of 5,677 spurring on UNI for Senior Day was on its feet with the shot clock winding down before Evans calmly buried a 3-pointer from the wing.
Tony Wills soon followed with another 3-pointer for a 48-38 lead and the Redbirds kept stringing together defensive stops. Evans scored on a drive and another 3-pointer to give ISU a 53-40 lead with 5:36 left, and it was pretty much over at that point.
Evans finished with 14 points, two off his career high, thanks to 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range. His 3-pointer with two seconds left gave ISU a 30-25 halftime lead.
“I haven't been shooting it well before this game. I've kind of been getting out of my routine as far as extra shots,” he said. “(Assistant coach Dean) Oliver made sure and has been on me every day this week, putting up 250 (shots) after waking up at 7:30 or after practice. I shot with confidence and didn't really think about it going in or out.”
UNI was outscored, 21-4, down the stretch. The Panthers shot 30 percent from the field in the second half and 35.6 percent overall in suffering their worst-ever loss at the McLeod Center, which opened in 2007.
“I felt good leaving guys in for extended minutes in the second half,” said Muller. “I think you could see that on the court. Our defense was really good, man and zone, and we got some offensive rhythm. MiKyle (McIntosh) kind of looked like his old self a little bit, and I think that gave us confidence also.”
McIntosh, who had played three games after Feb. 1 arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, went 7 of 9 from the field and paced the Redbirds with 15 points, carrying ISU with 11 points in the first half.
Lee added 14 points, eight rebounds, four assists (with one turnover) and two steals. He could become ISU's first recipient of the Larry Bird Trophy as the MVC's most valuable player since Tarise Bryson in 2001 when awards are announced Tuesday.
The Redbirds had won their three previous games by a combined seven points before showing Saturday they could be back to full strength heading to St. Louis.
“Me, Deontae (Hawkins), Tony and MiKyle basically said we'll set the tone for the team and have been preaching to everybody how we want to come out and play aggressive from the start and not have it be a game, even though I knew it would be a 40-minute game,” said Lee. “We wanted to be aggressors today.”
Wills was responsible for holding UNI's Jeremy Morgan, who was averaging 15.2 points, to a season-low two points on 1-of-11 shooting, including 0 of 7 on 3-pointers. Senior guard Jordan Ashton was the Panthers' only double-figure scorer with 13 points.
“Tony Wills is one of the best defenders in this league,” said Muller. “I hope he's rewarded for what he does (on the MVC All-Defensive Team) because stats don't show it. Our zone was really good. Other guys spent time on him (Morgan). We know how good of a player he is, and I don't think he had one easy shot the entire day.”
ISU came into the game ranked No. 4 in the country in field goal percentage defense (.377) and eighth in scoring defense (61.4 points per game).
“They're one of the best defensive teams in the country,” said UNI coach Ben Jacobson. “Their numbers have shown over the course of the season they've had a terrific year on that end of the floor. They have size and length and paid attention to what he (Morgan) was doing.”
After getting routed at Wichita State on Feb. 4, the Redbirds knew having to win their last six games to finish 17-1 to gain a piece of the conference title was possible.
That made it all sweeter.
“To have to win every game and have that pressure, that was awesome,” said Muller. “I'll remember that out there for the rest of my life because of who we did it with.
“My players, I love them to death.”