DES MOINES, Iowa — Northern Iowa had itself in position for its biggest upset since beating Kansas in the 2010 NCAA tournament.
The Panthers led No. 17 Iowa State by 18 points in the second half Saturday and were controlling the tempo against a team that loves to play fast.
But Melvin Ejim and the rest of the Cyclones eventually shifted into high gear, survived Seth Tuttle's buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime and won 91-82 to put a damper on the Panthers' best game of the season.
It was the second straight tough loss for Northern Iowa (3-5), which couldn't hold an 11-point second half lead at Milwaukee last Tuesday. But it left coach Ben Jacobson with a different feeling.
"Tuesday, we didn't get ourselves back into position to win the game," Jacobson said. "Tonight, we came back and got the lead. We got a lot of things done. This is a big step forward from last Tuesday at Milwaukee."
Ejim scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half and overtime and Georges Niang also scored 22, his career high, to help the Cyclones (7-0) snap a three-game losing streak to their instate rival.
Iowa State went on a 23-2 run during a 7 1/2-minute stretch in the second half to erase a 49-31 deficit.
"It felt more like 90 seconds," Jacobson said. "It happened fast. It's unfortunate we didn't get a couple of baskets in there to keep the lead."
Northern did regain a four-point lead, but needed Tuttle's banked-in, off-balance 3 to force OT.
"We had that momentum," UNI's Nate Buss said. "We fought back and put ourselves in position to win. We were energized after that play. We definitely thought we had a good chance going into overtime."
Ejim doomed those hopes by drilling back-to-back 3s to put the Cyclones ahead 82-75 with 1:18 left.
Buss had 23 points and Wes Washpun scored 18 with eight assists for Northern Iowa. Tuttle finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Iowa State was listless for the first 24 minutes and found itself trailing by 18 points on a neutral floor. It was by far the biggest deficit the Cyclones had seen all year.
It didn't last long.
Iowa State quickly cut the lead to six when Ejim banked in a 19-footer. Niang gave the Cyclones the lead on back-to-back baskets, and DeAndre Kane found Ejim for an alley-oop dunk that put them ahead 54-51 with 9:04 to go.
Ejim's 3 made it 70-64 with 1:14 left in regulation, and it looked as if the Cyclones had finally sealed the win.
But Tuttle, a 6-foot-8 post player, threw up a desperation heave from the top of the key that somehow found the glass and the net.
"We had a plan to attack the whole game and never let up," said Washpun, who also had eight assists and six rebounds. "We just had a rough stretch there (in the second half) and it hurt us in the end."
Kane had 18 points, 11 rebounds and six assists for the Cyclones, including a three-point play to start overtime. Iowa State never trailed after that.
"This happens, where you come out a little bit flat, the other team senses it, jumps on you. Then you're playing from behind on a team that's try to take time off the shot clock and control it," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "Once we started defending, getting active hands, getting turnovers ... we turned it around."
Iowa State had made a habit out of blowing away overmatched opponents as quickly as possible. But it didn't take long for the Panthers to prove they could do more than just hang with the Cyclones.
Back-to-back 3s by freshman Jeremy Morgan made it 22-9 Northern Iowa. Hoiberg called timeout to settle his team down, and they responded with a 10-0 run to get back in the game.
The Panthers kept coming though.
Northern Iowa's half-court offense gave the Cyclones fits, and Tuttle's three-point play helped give the Panthers a 42-29 halftime lead.
It was by far the worst half Iowa State had played all year. It only got worse after the break, as Northern Iowa quickly extended its lead to 49-31.
But the Cyclones rallied behind Ejim, Kane and their swift transition game to avoid yet another loss to the Panthers.
"Everybody was pretty disappointed," Washpun said. "We really felt like we fought hard. We had it right in our hands. We just let it slip away."