Northern Iowa shared the Missouri Valley regular-season title with Creighton. The Panthers celebrated alone after winning the conference tournament.
Ali Farokhmanesh scored eight of the Panthers' 12 points in overtime, helping the top seed overcome an Illinois State rally fueled by tournament MVP Osiris Eldridge in a 60-57 victory in the championship game Sunday.
"The way that game felt, somebody was going to have to do something," said coach Ben Jacobson, whose team was picked to finish sixth in the conference before the season. "Ali came up big. He comes through for us."
Kwadzo Ahelegbe had 17 points and hit two free throws with 16 seconds left in OT for the go-ahead points, helping Northern Iowa (23-10) earn the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Panthers matched a school record for victories while earning their first NCAA bid since 2004.
"It's just amazing that we got here," Ahelegbe said. "Nobody expected us to be here. Nobody, except for the people of Cedar Falls and our coaching staff."
The second overtime game in the tournament's 19-year St. Louis history had increased tension given the loser would have virtually no shot at an NCAA berth.
Illinois State, routed by Drake in the final last year, shot only 30.2 percent.
"When we shoot well, we usually win and when we shoot poorly, we usually struggle," Jankovich said. "That's just the nature of our team."
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. He also missed time in overtime because of cramps.
"It certainly didn't help us," Jankovich said. "But you know, you just never know. I can say I was stressed when he was out, that's for sure."
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.
"We played tough but we fell short again," Eldridge said. "They made shots when they had to and we couldn't get them to fall when we needed them to."
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.
"The coach called the first play for me and I hit that one, and then he asked what we wanted to run and I said, 'Run that play again,'" Farokhmanesh said.
Farokhmanesh also calmly hit a pair of free throws with 6.8 seconds to go for the game's final points.
"Who wouldn't want the ball in their hands?" Farokhmanesh said. "Everyone on our team wanted the ball in their hands and it just happened to be me who stepped up."
Northern Iowa had a 12-point lead in the first half before Illinois State rallied behind Eldridge's shooting.
He missed his first six shots before heating up with six in a row, including a pair of 3-pointers from well beyond the line. 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.