- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

DES MOINES, IOWA (AP) - For the past two years, Northern Iowa rolled into St. Louis as the top seed in the Missouri Valley tournament and rolled out with a league title.

For the past month, the Panthers have played more like pushovers than a powerhouse.

Northern Iowa (19-12, 10-8 MVC) has dropped six of its last seven _ a stretch coinciding with a season-ending injury to senior forward Lucas O’Rear _ and fallen to the fourth seed for the league tournament entering Friday’s game against fifth-seeded Creighton.

Only Southern Illinois (1993-95) has won straight Valley conference titles and Northern Iowa doesn’t look like a team ready to match the feat. In less than 12 months, the rebuilt Panthers have gone from a team that stunned top-seeded Kansas in the NCAA tournament to one whose hopes of at-large bid have long since faded.

Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson still believes in the basic principles that have guided the Panthers to success. He believes they apply to the league tournament.

“We’re approaching it the same way we have the last two years. They understand the obvious differences, going down the last two years as the No. 1 seed,” Jacobson said. “Other than that, we’re approaching it the exact same way. Working hard in terms of our preparation to go down there and, number one, be prepared and, number two, have the mindset that we’re going to play as hard as we can and as well as we can for as long as possible.”

That’s proven to be much tougher without O’Rear, the heart and soul of the defensive-minded Panthers.

After winning back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year honors in the league, O’Rear moved into the starting lineup this season to compensate for the loss of frontcourt stars Jordan Eglseder and Adam Koch.

The Panthers and O’Rear got it going after some early struggles, winning eight league games in a row to jump to 18-6 and 9-3 in the Valley. But when O’Rear left Northern Iowa’s 53-51 win over Illinois State on Feb. 2 with a fractured right ankle, he seemingly took the Panthers’ defense with him.

Northern Iowa has allowed 72.2 points a game without O’Rear in the lineup this season after giving up just 56.6 points with him. Their only win since O’Rear went down was at last-place Bradley.

The Panthers won’t go very far in St. Louis unless they can start playing better defense.

“We’ve played enough games without him, and we’ve had some stretches where we played really well,” Jacobson said. “There’s still a handful of things that we know we need to do better to give ourselves a better chance.”

One positive the Panthers have going for them is strong guard play. Sophomore Anthony James ranks second on the team in scoring and has hit 41.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. Junior Johnny Moran has a team-high 58 3s and has scored in double figures in five of his last six games.

Northern Iowa also has senior point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, who was named the Most Outstanding Player in last year’s league tournament.

Ahelegbe is averaging a career-high 14 points per game and was averaging 20 over his last four outings before a substandard effort in Saturday’s loss at Creighton.

Ahelegbe scored 24 points in last season’s win over Wichita State in the league title game, and Northern Iowa might need him to replicate such a feat three days in a row to pull off the unlikely three-peat.

“He’s led us to some pretty special places,” Jacobson said. “To know that we’ve got a senior that we know has played very well in St. Louis and has helped us win a lot of games there the past two years, for us that certainly helps.”

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