THE Missouri Valley player of the year looked the part when it counted. His Northern Iowa teammates stepped up, too, when the game looked hopeless.

Seth Tuttle had 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists, leading the 11th-ranked Panthers back from an 18-point, first-half deficit to beat Illinois State, 69-60, in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game yesterday.

"I knew we weren't out of it," said forward Nate Buss, who had 15 points with two blocks. "We're not ranked 11th in the country for nothing. We're not just going to lay down and die. We knew we were going to come back."

The Panthers (30-3) took control with a 25-4 run that erased a 36-22 halftime deficit. Jeremy Morgan had three three-pointers in the run and Tuttle, the Valley player of the year and tournament MVP, added eight points, often getting loose from constant double-teaming.

"He really exerted his will," Illinois State coach Dan Muller said. "When were in zone, they got it in to Tuttle; when we went man, they got it in to Tuttle."

Daishon Knight had 16 points for fourth-seeded Illinois State (21-12), which needed a win to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.

In other tournament championship games:

* At Jacksonville, Fla., Demarcus Daniels scored 22 points off the bench, and North Florida (23-11) beat USC Upstate, 63-57, in the Atlantic Sun Conference final to earn its first NCAA Tournament berth.

* At Conway, S.C., Warren Gillis scored 22 points and Elijah Wilson had 14 of his 19 in the second half to lead Coastal Carolina (24-9) to its second consecutive NCAA berth with an 81-70 victory over Winthrop in the Big South Conference Tournament.