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Top Ten Arch Madness Semifinal Games of the Last Decade

Arch Madness is this week, and many fans (including myself) won’t be able to attend this year. This will end a streak of seventeen consecutive Arch Madni for me, but I will be returning to the event just as soon as I can. As the 2021 tournament approaches, I thought I would look back at some of the best games of the last decade. Last week I started with the play-in games and the quarterfinals, and I have already taken a look at the history of the finals. This week we’ll look at what is often the most exciting round of the weekend: the semifinals. The best ten semifinal games of the decade are below.

Honorable Mention: In most of my articles I try to give every school a win, but unfortunately for Drake and Southern Illinois neither team has won a semifinal game this decade. Drake would have an easy W over Creighton on their record if we extended it back just a few years to 2008 when they dominated the league. Southern Illinois was arguably the most successful MVC team of the aughts and played in four Arch Madness finals from 2002 to 2007, finally winning the title in 2007.

2011- #1 Missouri State 60, #3 Creighton 50: Not only was this Missouri State’s only semifinal win of the decade, but they did it by beating GDMF Crayton which makes it extra special. Bonus points for toying with them by letting them take the lead before ending the game on a 31-13 run to win big.

2016- #2 Evansville 68, #6 Indiana State 42: This one started as a blowout, was a blowout in the middle, and ended as a blowout. It is UE’s only semifinal win of the millennium so far, but the Aces did with style points. It was especially jarring juxtaposed against the other semifinal of that session which was one of the more thrilling in Arch Madness history.

They trailed big early, but the Sycamores stormed back to upset the Shockers for the first of their two Arch Madness Finals appearances in the decade. Wichita jumped out to leads of 13-2 and 18-7 early on in this one and it looked like they might cruise to the title game. Led by Myles Walker (who had 14) and freshman Jake Odum (who had 12), the Trees were able to cut the lead to five by halftime. They went on an 18-1 run early in the second half to take control of the game and built the lead up to as many as 12 with 3:23 to go. Wichita never quit and went on an 11-2 run to cut the lead to three with 30 seconds left. The Trees were able to convert on 4 of 4 free throws in the final seconds to win the game. Indiana State went on to beat Missouri State the next day for their first Arch Madness title in ten years, and they haven’t won it again since. The Jake Odum era did produce two NIT campaigns and a trip to the Arch Madness finals in again 2014, however.

This game was not particularly close or overly exciting, but it makes this list because of the history that was made in its outcome. It was the worst combined seeding for an Arch Madness semifinal ever, as the sixth-seeded Bears took on seventh-seeded Valpo. Valpo was just the third team in Arch Madness history to advance to the semifinals after playing in an opening round play-in game. When they won, they became the first team ever to win three games to get to the Arch Madness finals. It was a close game for the first half as the (then) Crusaders led 40-38 at halftime. Valpo didn’t go on a single sustained run, but did outscore the Bears 24-11 to take a 14 point lead and the game was never in doubt from there. After a pedestrian quarterfinal performance, Larry Bird Trophy runner up Javon Freeman-Liberty lit it up in the semis with 29 points to lead all scorers. Valpo would ultimately run out of gas in the finals losing to Bradley, but if you ask me this was their “welcome to the Valley” moment.

All MVC fans remember Loyola’s run to the Final Four in 2018. It was fricken awesome. Many of them also likely remember the Ramblers dominating Arch Madness, topping it off with a blowout win over Illinois State in the finals. However, it wasn’t quite that straightforward. Loyola was never in serious danger of losing to UNI in the quarterfinals, but the Panthers led midway through the second half and still had a chance to tie in the final 30 seconds. Against Bradley in the semifinals, Loyola controlled the game for the most part, but it wasn’t the total blowout befitting of a Final Four squad. For one, it took the Ramblers nearly three minutes to score their first basket. Although they took control of the game, leading at halftime by 11, Bradley mounted a comeback. The Braves outscored the Ramblers 28-18 over the first thirteen minutes of the second half to get as close as one-point, 54-53, with 6:42 to go. Loyola would ice the game with defense, holding BU to just one point the rest of the way. But the Ramblers themselves only made one basket from the field over the final 8:42 and the final margin was accomplished with free throws. The Ramblers rode the struggle bus for much of the first two games of Arch Madness. What they did after that is history.

#7.) 2014- #2 Indiana State 62, #6 Southern Illinois 59

Although this game was an exciting affair that came down to the wire, it was dampened a bit by the fact that neither team had a realistic shot at winning against undefeated and 2nd ranked Wichita State in the finals the next day. Right? Wrong. The NIT bound Sycamores were the 2nd best team in the league that year and had gone toe-to-toe with the Shockers earlier in the year when they hosted them in Terre Haute. The Salukis, despite having a losing record, also gave WSU one of their biggest scares when they hosted them in Carbondale. So there was hope for both teams! Southern Illinois took a one-point lead into halftime but came out of the second half cold, scoring only two points over the first five minutes to fall behind by six. SIU stayed about one or two possessions behind for most of the half until making a run at the end. The boys from Carbondale scored on three straight possessions to cut the lead to two with 3 minutes left, and got within one on two free throws with 45 seconds left. After ISU scored on a tip-in to reclaim a 3-point lead SIU’s three-pointer at the buzzer missed and ISU moved on. Senior Jake Odum stepped up in his final collegiate win with 20 points. All that stuff I said at the beginning was nonsense, though, as ISU lost by 14 to Wichita State the next day.

While they have struggled to get over the hump and win a title, Illinois State has no shortage of exciting semifinal victories. You’re going to see them pop up a few times on this list going forward. You’ll also see a lot of Wichita State on the losing end. The Shockers will be on this list four times total and they’ll go 0-4, each time as the better seed. One of the best things about Arch Madness before the Shockers left the league was if your team was eliminated, you at least knew there would be a good chance you’d still have the opportunity to see the Shockers flame out spectacularly. In this case it was a few scoring droughts that cost WSU. A 14-2 Wichita run that took place over more than 11 minutes of game time gave WSU a 26-14 lead early on. They held on to take a 30-22 advantage into the break. ISU caught up quickly when WSU went over five minutes without scoring early in the second half. When the drought finally ended, the Redbirds had a five point lead with 12:39 to go. The game went back-and-forth from there. With the contest tied and 2:55 to go, Tekele Cotton scored to make it 58-56 Shockers. Daishon Knight then made a dagger of a three to give ISU the lead. ISU added two freebies on the next possession and locked it down on defense. The Shockers didn’t score again until two free throws made it 63-60 with 22 seconds to go. They made their own defensive play as Fred VanVleet forced a steal and made a layup to get the game within one point. Daishon Knight made the ensuing free throws and VanVleet’s last second effort missed causing pandemonium for ISU that wouldn’t end until the second half of the championship game (where they blew a 14-point halftime lead). Daishon Knight was the hero with 25 points on 10-15 shooting for the NIT bound Redbirds.

In 2019 Loyola was coming off its Final Four season with several of the same players. They won the regular season MVC title, were the 1-seed for the second consecutive year and had not one but two Larry Bird Trophy winners (and possibly another who will go on to win one) on their roster. In 2019 Bradley was…….fine. On this day, though, the magic ran out for the Ramblers and they were upset by BU. The Braves did take a lead early, 21-13, with seven minutes to go in the first half. Loyola cut it to three by halftime and had taken four-point lead with 13:19 to go in the second stanza. It was a defensive battle over the next 7+ minutes but Bradley got the better of it, outscoring the Ramblers 18-8 to take a 49-43 lead with 5:45 to go. Cooper Kaifes cut the lead to three at the 5:42 mark, and then it was a lot of defense for a good while until Kaifes hit another three to cut the lead to 50-49 with 1:47 left. At this point, Bradley had only scored one point in four minutes, but Nate Kennell stepped up for a dagger of a three-pointer on the next possession to make it 53-49. Loyola answered with a Marques Townes jumper to cut it to 53-51 with 1:05 to go. A Bradley turnover on the next possession gave Loyola one more shot to tie or win, but Townes’ shot missed and Bradley held on 53-51. The Ramblers settled for the NIT while Bradley came from behind to beat UNI in the finals the next day to claim a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

#4.) 2018- #3 Illinois State 76, #2 Southern Illinois 68 (OT)

Any time an Arch Madness semifinal goes to an extra period it is cause for celebration. There have only been two OT semis in the last decade by my count. This one took place in 2018, which is better known by MVC fans as the year Loyola went to the Final Four. Before they could do that, though, they needed an opponent for the finals and this contest (between the Valley’s next two best teams that year) provided that. The fun thing about this one is that unlike many MVC contests it wasn’t a case of one team taking a big lead and the other responding. This one was close throughout. The Redbirds’ seven-point halftime lead (36-29) was the largest lead for either team at that point, and the largest lead either team would have in regulation. ISU led until a Marcus Bartley three-pointer put the Salukis in front by a score of 45-44 with 11:59 to go. The game was within a possession for the next several minutes until a Phil Fayne dunk with 6:36 to go put ISU up by five, 54-49. Neither team scored for three minutes until an Armon Fletcher three cut the lead to 54-52. After a Phil Fayne free throw gave ISU a three-point lead, Tyler Smithpeters hit a pair for SIU and Aaron cook followed with a basket of his own to give SIU a 56-55 lead with two minutes to go. Fayne missed two free throws on ISUs next possession, then missed another on the following possession before finally making one to tie it at 56. That ended up being the score at the end of regulation. Heading into OT, ISU hadn’t made a basket and had only hit two of six free throws over a 6:36 period. That did not carry into OT. Phil Fayne, who was the game’s leading scorer with 26 points, scored 13 points himself in OT including eleven points on ISU’s first five possessions. In fact, Illinois State scored on all ten of their possessions in OT and SIU could not keep up as the Redbirds pulled away for a 76-68 win.

You might be surprised to see how rare buzzer beaters are at Arch Madness. I know I was. This game technically wasn’t that, but it was as close as we got in a semifinal game this decade. The Panthers came into this Arch Madness with a losing record for the first time in 15 years and they weren’t expecting much. After beating 3rd seeded SIU and forcing Barry Hinson into retirement, they went up against a Drake team that was co-champion of the MVC but running on fumes. The Drake situation may sound familiar to fans here in 2021. The Bulldogs were down to six scholarship players and had lost two all-league players to injury during the week (after losing their starting PG earlier in the year). This was not the same Drake team that won a share of the league title. If I were a Drake fan I would always wonder “what-if” with this team, as they were so shorthanded but still nearly pulled it off. It is not a stretch to think that if the ‘Dogs were healthy (or even healthier) that they could’ve won this game and beaten 5th seeded Bradley in the title game. We’ll never know. The story of this game, however, was Wyatt Lohaus. The last holdout from UNI’s 2015 and 2016 NCAA Tournament teams, Lohaus completely took this game over for UNI, scoring 27 points in the win. This one was close mostly throughout, as the biggest separation in the second half came when UNI took a 50-44 lead at the 7:15 mark. Drake, though, immediately went on a 9-0 run by scoring on five straight possessions to take a 53-50 lead with 5:01 to go. The lead changed hands a couple times until a pair of Trae Berhow free throws gave UNI a 58-56 lead with 2:31 left. Both teams failed to score on three straight possessions until Tremell Murphy scored on a driving layup with eight seconds to go. Wyatt Lohaus then took the ball coast to coast and straight to the hoop for a layup that gave UNI a 60-58 lead with two seconds left. Drake’s halfcourt desperation shot missed to give UNI the win. The Panthers would suffer their own heartbreak the next day as they would lose a large lead to Bradley in the title game.

Illinois State tends to win exciting semifinal games and Wichita State tended to lose them. With this game, the two tendencies collided, and the status quo prevailed. In 2012 the Redbirds had a tough task ahead of them to claim an NCAA Tournament spot. First, they had to beat NIT-bound UNI, then #15 Wichita State, and finally #25 Creighton. They ultimately came up short, but not before knocking out the Panthers and Shockers. This game was a banger, and ISU won despite making just 19 baskets from the field. As they tend to do in these games, Wichita controlled it early. They led by double-digits for most of the first half, taking a thirteen-point lead at one point before ending the frame up 36-28. They increased the lead to as much as 13 again in the second half before ISU started to chip away. ISU struggled to completely close the gap. They slowly chipped and chipped until a 3-pointer by Nic Moore gave them their first lead at 56-55 with 8:34 to go. The lead changed hands a few times after that until a Toure Murry layup gave Wichita a 63-61 lead with 6:36 to go. Then, in what is starting to emerge as a common MVC tournament trend, the offenses slowed down considerably. Neither team scored for two minutes until a Jackie Charmichael layup tied the game for ISU. There was another drought until the 2:51 mark when Wichita made one free throw to go ahead 64-63. With 30 seconds to go, ISU had the ball and and after a miss and an offensive rebound, Demetric Williams fouled Tyler Brown (who led all scorers with 25 points) and he calmly drained two free throws. Toure Murry missed the desperation shot at the buzzer for WSU and the Redbirds were on to the title game. After losing to Creighton in the finals, ISU got one of the last NIT spots as a 7-seed and they beat 2nd seeded Ole Miss on the road in OT before losing at Stanford in OT in round two.

#1.) 2016- #4 Northern Iowa 57, #1 Wichita State 52 (OT)

My bias may be coming out, but this was a no-brainer for me. Upset? Check. Big comeback? Check. Overtime? Check. Thrilling finish? Check. Led to a tournament berth (and tournament win) that wouldn’t have otherwise happened? Check. Wichita was the loser? CHECK! This one really had everything you’d want in an Arch Madness semifinal. The Shockers had this game by the balls until they didn’t, and the Panthers Jekyll and Hyde season was extended for two more thrilling wins and a heartbreaking defeat. But this isn’t about the Panthers’ buzzer beater over Evansville in the final, the game-winning halfcourt shot in the first round of the NCAAs against Texas, or the full-on meltdown in round two against Texas A&M. In this game, the regular season champion Shockers held the Panthers scoreless for the first 7:49, building a 10-0 lead before UNI finally made a basket at 12:11. UNI slowly worked their way back into it and trailed just 29-23 at the break. The Panthers continued to slowly chip away, but struggled to get over the hump as the second half moved forward. They got within two on four separate occasions, but did not tie it up until a Klint Carlson three with 6:15 to go tied the score at 41. An and-one by Washpun just over a minute later gave UNI its first lead of the day, 45-43 with 4:57 to go. That was followed, however, by three scoreless minutes by UNI in which a pair of Zach Brown free throws and a layup by VanVleet gave Wichita the lead back, 47-45. Wyatt Lohaus tied the game at 47 with 1:57 to go and neither team was able to score again. The Panthers survived a missed front-end from Zack Brown and a last second attempt by Van Vleet. In overtime, Carlson gave UNI a 49-47 lead at 4:15 but Connor Frankamp answered with a three to give WSU a 50-49 lead with 3:05 to go. On the next possession Wes Washpun scored to put UNI up one again, but the Shockers answered on their next possession with a layup to go up 52-51. At the 2:01 mark Jeremy Morgan made one of two free throws to tie the game, and the Panthers got the ball back as Matt Bohannon dove to the floor to steal the ball and call timeout. With the shot clock winding down on the next possession, Jeremy Morgan hit a rainbow three pointer to give UNI the lead at 55-52 with 1:18 left. Van Vleet turned it over again, Washpun scored for UNI on the next possession and the Panthers walked away with a 57-52 win and a berth in the title game. They would win that on a buzzer beater the following day, and their NCAA tournament exploits that season are the stuff of legend (both good and bad). None of that would have been possible without this thriller in the semifinals.

And with that I wish you all a happy Arch Madness, no matter where you’re watching it from. I’ll see you on the other side.

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