CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — Like the 24 teams before them, Northern Iowa fell short against Wichita State.
The Panthers now face an uphill climb simply to reach .500 before the end of the regular season.
Tekele Cotton scored 18 points and fourth-ranked Wichita State beat Northern Iowa 82-73 Saturday night, clearing perhaps its toughest remaining hurdle for an unbeaten regular season.
Cleanthony Early had all 16 of his points in the first half for the Shockers (25-0, 12-0 Missouri Valley Conference). They became the first team to open 25-0 since Derrick Rose helped Memphis win its first 26 games in 2007-08.
"They had an answer every time. I thought we defended on a large number of half-court possessions well. Got them into late shot clock (situations) and they made plays to put us back on our heels again," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said.
Northern Iowa got within 44-43 before Wichita State went on a 12-1 run early in the second half. The Panthers pulled back within single digits before Fred VanVleet's 3-pointer made it 69-57 with just more than 5 minutes left.
Matt Bohannon had 17 points and Seth Tuttle scored 16 for the Panthers (11-13, 5-7), who were outrebounded 40-24.
"They're the most physical team we've played all year," Tuttle said of the Shockers. "They just keep subbing in players. They've got three people who come in (at center) who are basically the same player. Constantly banging. Going to the offensive glass every time."
The Panthers entered play with a sub-.500 record. But coach Gregg Marshall and the Shockers knew from experience that playing Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls is a challenge.
Northern Iowa won eight of its first nine home games this season and was 4-3 here against Wichita State under Jacobson. The Panthers also were one of the few teams to beat the Final Four-bound Shockers a year ago, winning 57-52 at home last February.
Northern Iowa — like nearly every team that hosts the unbeaten Shockers — fed off the energy of a sold-out gym in the first half. But the Panthers had no answer for Early, who led Wichita State to a 44-37 halftime lead.
Northern Iowa quickly cut the lead to one before the Shockers went back ahead 53-44 on Darius Carter's three-point play with 15:18 left. Ron Baker then found Cotton for a 3 to beat the shot clock and cap a 12-1 run.
Carter had 15 points, including a dunk with just over 3 minutes to go that erased any small hope Northern Iowa had of a comeback.
VanVleet had 14 points with seven rebounds and Baker scored 12 for Wichita State. Wes Washpun scored 14 points with six assists for the Panthers, who have lost three in a row.
"It's especially hard here. We made the plays. We did what we had to do," Marshall said.
The Shockers have just six games left in the regular season and should be solid favorites in each one of them.
Wichita State faces Evansville, Loyola and Bradley on the road — and all of those teams woke up on Sunday under .500 in the Valley.
The Shockers host Southern Illinois, Drake and a decent Missouri State team (16-8) in the season finale on March 1.
Meanwhile, Northern Iowa needs to finish 4-2 simply to reach .500 in the Valley by the time the league tournament rolls around. The Panthers know they'll need to play more consistently just to reach such a modest goal.
"We've had a lot of games where we've had the lead late in games and... we just didn't close the deal. We all believe deep down that we are a good basketball team. We know it," Tuttle said. "We just haven't put a full 40 minutes together."