CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Northern Iowa center Jordan Eglseder returned just in time to celebrate a Missouri Valley title with his teammates.
The Panthers were certainly glad their big guy was back to help cut down the nets.
Eglseder returned from a three-game suspension to score 13 points, and Northern Iowa (No. 22 ESPN/USA Today, No. 25 AP) beat Illinois State 61-55 on Saturday night to complete its first unbeaten season at home in 46 years.
Adam Koch added 12 points and a key late block for the Panthers (25-4, 15-3 Missouri Valley), who also reached the 25-win mark for the first time.
Northern Iowa clinched the Valley title without Eglseder two weeks ago, but coach Ben Jacobson wanted to celebrate in front of the home fans.
Eglseder almost missed the party.
He was suspended for three games after being arrested and charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated on Feb. 14. He came back for the season finale with a freshly shaved head and a renewed appreciation for his teammates.
"I felt terrible for what happened and, I mean, I know I let the team down. But they stepped it up when they needed to," Eglseder said. "We're back and we're ready to go."
The 7-footer finished 5 of 10 from the floor with six rebounds, and received a large ovation from the crowd in Senior Night ceremonies shortly after the game. The Panthers' second-leading scorer and leading rebounder passed the 1,000-point mark early in the second half.
"When it isn't there, you don't realize how important it is until you see it again. His presence is so important to what we're doing," Jacobson said.
As is their nature, the Panthers gave a record home crowd a late scare before securing the win. They did that a lot this season, though, en route to their first unbeaten home record since an 11-0 mark in 1963-64.
Illinois State's Lloyd Phillips and Osiris Eldridge hit 3-pointers to pull the Redbirds (21-9, 11-7) within 58-55 with 34.4 seconds left. But Koch swatted Dinma Odiakosa's layup try and Johnny Moran hit a pair of free throws with 7 seconds left to help the Panthers hang on.
Eldridge had 14 points for Illinois State, which lost for the first time in seven games. The Redbirds will be the third seed in next week's Missouri Valley tournament.
Northern Iowa maintained a slim lead to start the second half, jumping ahead 45-40 on Ali Farokhmanesh's 3 with 8:16 left.
Jacobson picked up a technical foul shortly thereafter for arguing a foul call, but Illinois State could only squeeze one point out of a golden opportunity to seize momentum.
Koch, who'd been frustrated much of the night by Illinois State's physical defense, took over from there. He broke through for a transition slam, a soft bank shot and two free throws to make it 53-45 with just under four minutes left.
But this night belonged to Eglseder, whose renewed focus was apparent from the opening tip. He helped key an 18-4 run that put the Panthers ahead by 11 midway through the first half, a lead they would not relinquish.
Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Dunham each added 10 points for the Panthers.
Though Northern Iowa headed into the home stretch as a near-lock for the NCAA tournament, a recent 2-2 skid raised mild alarms in Cedar Falls.
The Panthers lost at Bradley 68-59 on Feb. 13, hours before Eglseder was arrested. They bounced back with a win over Creighton to clinch the Valley title and a victory over Old Dominion solidified their postseason resume, all while their big man sat out. But on Tuesday they suffered an inexplicable 55-54 loss at Evansville -- the last-place team in the Valley.
Though that loss could cost Northern Iowa its spot in the Top 25, the win over the Redbirds -- and Eglseder's play -- should ease any doubts about their NCAA at-large viability.
The Panthers won't have to worry, though, if they can repeat as conference tournament champions. They'll be the top seed again when they open play in St. Louis on Friday.
"It's pretty special," Koch said. "There were a lot of expectations going into this year, so it's nice to do it again."
The Redbirds likely won't reach the NCAA tournament without winning out next weekend in St. Louis. But their recent play suggests they're strong enough to set up a possible rematch of last season's tournament title.
Northern Iowa robbed Illinois State of a Big Dance bid in that one, beating the Redbirds in overtime.
"I told our guys at the beginning of the year that we were a long way away from a Northern Iowa," Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said. "We have closed the gap, but still we didn't manage to get over the hump. But I thought it was a great effort."