CARBONDALE, Ill. — Paul Jesperson matched his season-high with 13 points and Seth Tuttle added another 13 to keep 18th-ranked Northern Iowa in the hunt for the Missouri Valley Conference title with a 59-52 win over Southern Illinois on Wednesday night.
The Panthers (19-2, 8-1 Missouri Valley) rallied from their fifth halftime deficit of the season and stay a game back of No. 12 Wichita State. Northern Iowa hosts Wichita State on Saturday at the McLeod Center, where it is 10-0 this season. The Shockers (19-2, 9-0) won their 27th straight league game Wednesday night against Loyola and lead the Panthers by a game entering the second half of conference play.
Jesperson, who had scored 12 points in his previous eight games, made 5 of 6 from the field, including 3 of 4 from the 3-point line in 24 minutes. It was his longest outing of the season since playing 26 minutes in the win over Iowa on Dec. 20.
“We’ve kind of gone with different guys on different nights,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “Not every night does Paul get the kind of minutes it takes to get into a little bit of a rhythm, and help your team, and tonight he did and he came through, big time.”
Tuttle made 4 of 7 from the field and 5 of 7 at the free-throw line to help the Panthers win their eighth straight game. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound senior forward had a game-high 24 points in the Panthers’ first win over Southern Illinois this season.
Salukis coach Barry Hinson was determined to make other players beat his club. Northern Iowa got 11 points off the bench from Nate Buss and made 5 of 8 from the 3-point line in the second half.
“We said we were going to make Tuttle beat us, and he had a double-double tonight but he really had to work hard,” Hinson said. “He got 13 points, but he only got four baskets, and we felt like we weren’t going to let what happened up at Cedar Falls happen tonight. We wanted to make sure to make those other guys beat us, and, quite frankly, I’ll just tell you the tale of the game was Jesperson and Buss.”
Southern Illinois (9-13, 2-7) got a season-high 10 points from backup center Ibby Djimde but went more than six minutes without a field goal in the second half. Northern Iowa’s Matt Bohannon started an 18-3 run with a 3-pointer at the 14:40 mark. Wes Washpun hit two free throws and Jesperson added a 3 from the right corner to put the Panthers up six.
• TIP-INS: Northern Iowa: Tuttle grabbed 10 rebounds for his 20th career double-double. ... Saturday’s game against Wichita State will be the first meeting between two Missouri Valley Conference teams ranked in the top 25 in more than 30 years. Eighteenth-ranked Tulsa beat sixteenth-ranked Wichita State 99-88 at home on Jan. 16, 1982, in the league’s last matchup between two top 25 teams. ... Behind 24 points from Jesperson and Buss, Northern Iowa’s reserves outscored Southern Illinois’ 30-29.
Northern Iowa hosts No. 12 Wichita State on Saturday.