Northern Iowa awaits another challenge vs. No. 5 Villanova

Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson will go from coaching his team to a win over North Carolina State, which beat No. 2 Arizona in the Battle 4 Atlantis, to playing what he called the very best of the field -- No. 5 Villanova -- in the championship game on Friday.

"I've seen everybody play here and they're the best," Jacobson said of Villanova after Northern Iowa defeated N.C. State 64-60 on Thursday in a semifinal game at the Imperial Ballroom Arena at Paradise Island, Bahamas.

"They look like a team that could win a national championship, the way they approach things and the way they do everything. They're making hustle plays. It's a team that's built on toughness."

Villanova (5-0) persevered in its first two games in the Battle 4 Atlantis with pivotal runs in the second half against Western Kentucky and Tennessee to pull out wins.

They trailed 44-29 with 1:39 left in the first half against the Volunteers on Thursday before taking control from the start of the second half. Coach Jay Wright's team scored the first 11 points as part of that 23-2 burst.

Villanova made its comeback in an 85-76 win over Tennessee despite having five players with at least two fouls by halftime, including starters Omari Spellman (three), Makel Bridges (two) and Jalen Brunson (two).

"I would love to tell you I came up with some great strategy," Wright said. "It was just we made it through the first half with everybody in foul trouble. ... We just said, 'All right, we've got everybody back, let's go play, let's do what we were supposed to do.'"

Villanova shot 52 percent after halftime, fueled by Tennessee's 12 second-half turnovers that helped the Wildcats score in transition. The Wildcats also had an aggressive edge that got them to the line 24 times after halftime, making 20.

"That's how we should play, and throughout the whole game," said Bridges, who had 21 points. "You just saw parts of that today, in the beginning of the first half and the beginning of the second half. We practice every day trying to play like that for 40 minutes."

Brunson scored 18 of his 25 points after halftime, finishing 8 of 16 from the field and 9 of 9 from the line to go with six assists. He topped 1,000 points in his career and stands at 1,007.

"(Teammates) give me confidence," Brunson said. "Coach gives me confidence. I put the work in, I should have confidence in myself."

Northern Iowa (5-1) had a second-half comeback of its own in its win over North Carolina State, which was coming off a 90-84 victory over Arizona on Wednesday.

The Panthers trailed by seven points midway through the second half but extended their winning streak to five games behind freshman guard Tywhon Pickford (18 points, 18 rebounds) and 6-foot-10 senior forward Bennett Koch (16 points).

Northern Iowa rode Koch down the stretch as he delivered eight straight points to help the Panthers gain separation from the Wolfpack.

The Panthers, members of the Missouri Valley Conference, have made it to the second round of the 2015 and 2016 NCAA tournaments.

"I'm looking forward to being in that game against Villanova because you want to play the best," said Jacobson, in his 12th season as Northern Iowa's coach. "It's great for the kids to be getting attention nationally with these games on national TV.

"The guys will be challenged and they're looking forward to it."

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