CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) -- Northern Iowa went to its bench to overcome the MVC's stingiest defense -- and grab sole possession of first place in the Valley.
Grant Stout scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as Northern Iowa beat Southern Illinois 66-61 Saturday for its fifth straight win.
"It might have been the difference in the game, the way our bench played," said Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson. "We went to our bench...and they just made some plays."
Grant Stout's dunk following a missed 3-pointer by Southern Illinois put the Panthers ahead 55-45. The Salukis (12-3, 3-1) got within six with 1:01 left, then went to the press to try and force the Panthers into giving back the lead.
It almost worked.
Jamaal Tatum scored a game-high 18 points and Randal Falker added 17 for Southern Illinois, which saw its winning streak snapped at five. The Salukis, who entered play first in the Valley and fifth in the nation in scoring defense, allowed more than 64 points for just the third time this season.
"You get that 20 off the bench, that really decided the game," said Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery of the Panthers. "They made plays like they were starters."
A matchup between the league's two best defenses lived up to its billing early on.
Neither team was able to build much of a lead until Northern Iowa went on a 17-5 run -- keyed by a pair of drives from reserve freshman Adam Koch and four straight points from Stout -- to move ahead by seven with 6:11 left.
Jacobson has started the same five players all season, and Stout and Coleman have each started 80 straight games. But Jacobson has stressed to his bench -- which is made up mostly of youngsters working toward a starting spot down the line -- that they better be ready when called upon.
"I think today a few of us did a good job of that. When we got a chance we went for it and were aggressive," Koch said.
Southern Illinois had led by as much as 32-27 following a 9-0 run, but had no answer for the Panthers' game-changing spurt.
"We didn't come out with enough energy and enthusiasm in the second half," Lowery said. "We didn't execute as well offensively as we needed to."
The Panthers put Southern Illinois in the bonus with 13 minutes left, but committed just one foul over the next ten minutes. By that time the Salukis had put Northern Iowa in the double-bonus, and the Panthers responded by attacking the rim.
Josten followed a 3-point play by Coleman with two free throws to give Northern Iowa a 51-41 lead.
"Our guys got a little more aggressive the last 15 minutes, turned the corner a little bit, and put them in the same position we were in. I thought that was the difference," Jacobson said.
Talk of a spot in the Top 25 is starting to swirl around the Panthers, who are now leading a league ranked third in the nation in RPI -- the formula used by the NCAA to help pick its 65-team tournament field.
Jacobson isn't biting. For now, simply matching the Panthers' best-ever start in league play will have to do.
"I don't get a vote in that, and I don't know that if I did which way I'd vote. We just don't pay a lot of attention to that," Jacobson said. "It's too early in the year to move past anything but getting better each day in practice."