CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — The only way Wichita State can answer all the questions about its schedule is win every game on it.
After finishing its toughest week of the season with two more wins, an undefeated regular season is a real possibility. Tekele Cotton scored 18 points and fourth-ranked Wichita State beat Northern Iowa 82-73 on Saturday night, clearing perhaps its toughest remaining regular-season hurdle.
Cleanthony Early had all 16 of his points in the first half for the Shockers (25-0, 12-0 Missouri Valley Conference), who beat second-place Indiana State on the road Wednesday night. They became the first team to open 25-0 since Derrick Rose helped Memphis win its first 26 games in 2007-08.
"Going to Indiana State and Northern Iowa back-to-back, that's a chore for anyone," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "I challenge anyone that wants to talk about our league or our schedule to take that road trip and come out 2-0. It's a pretty tough thing to do."
Northern Iowa got as close as 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 scored 17 points and Seth Tuttle had 16 for the Panthers (11-13, 5-7), who were outrebounded 40-24. The Panthers entered play with a sub-.500 record. But Marshall and the Shockers knew from experience that playing Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls would be a challenge.
Northern Iowa won eight of its first nine home games this season and was 4-3 here against Wichita State under coach Ben Jacobson. The Panthers were also 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.
"They made a great start to the second half, and our guys just responded beautifully," Marshall said. "We knew they weren't going to quit, and it was a long grind until the end." 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. "Twenty-five games in, it comes with the territory. We've been through it every game. Everybody wants to knock you off," VanVleet 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. The Memphis team that the Shockers are a win from matching made it all the way to the national title game before a heartbreaking overtime loss to Kansas.
Wichita State isn't looking that far ahead quite yet. But over the last three months, the Shockers have done everything in their power to set up another run to the Final Four. "I would say it's a combination of a couple of things. One, the confidence they gained this year, and certainly the confidence from last year and what they accomplished," Jacobson said about the Shockers. "You have to have really good players, and they have that. And you have to be well coached, and they are that."