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Coming back from heartbreak: Northern Iowa’s journey past a tourney collapse

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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — It wasn’t until the impossible materialized that Jeremy Morgan really realized what was happening around him.

Morgan and his Northern Iowa teammates were 48 hours removed from witnessing the improbable, but the impossible, the seemingly truly impossible, was now real. A lead that should have been safe from famine, pestilence and plague had been vaporized.

Northern Iowa had collapsed completely. A 12-point advantage on the scoreboard and 44 seconds on the clock should have been enough. It should have been foolproof.

But Texas A&M, in the second round of the NCAA tournament last March, miraculously made up the difference.

“We were just kind of in shock,” Morgan, now a UNI senior, told NBCSports.com this summer, “but at the same time we knew we were going to have to go out and try to win the game in overtime.”

They didn’t, though. Not in the first extra five minutes and not in the second, when the game went to double-overtime. That’s where the Aggies finished off the Panthers, 92-88, and one of the most stunning comebacks in the history of the sport.

“We were in the Sweet 16,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson told NBCSports.com this summer, “and we let up.

“We let the game get away. That’s what made it the hardest one.”

What happened next, though, began to define the moment.

The Panthers’ three seniors – Matt Bohannon, Wes Washpun and Paul Jesperson, whose half-courter at the buzzer beat Texas just two days earlier – sat at the post-game podium and fielded questions, many of which they couldn’t possibly have answers for in that moment, with poise and patience.

I hope people understand just how much we came together,” Bohannon said then, “and how much if you believe you can do something special. Man, I’m just going to lean on these guys. I mean, we’ll eventually get over it, but we’re just going to need our time for now.”

Their reactions, from the guys who had the most invested and the most to lose as seniors, seemed to set the tone for UNI.

It was the best medicine,” Jacobson said. “To see those three young guys stand up there and answer the questions … and just be 100 percent open with what they were thinking, what they were doing, what they feel, I just thought it was obviously impressive but it was great for all of us to help us get on with it.”

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 20: Alex Caruso #21 of the Texas A&M Aggies celebrates after defeating the Northern Iowa Panthers in double overtime with a score of 88 to 92 during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 20, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Moving on, of course, is what Northern Iowa simply has to do. A little more than a week into the season, it certainly would appear they’re going to do just that, with runner-up finish last weekend at the Puerto Rico Tip-off.

To appreciate a bounce back, though, the context of the depth should be understood.

A number of mathematical models had the Panthers at essentially a 99.99 percent win probability. FiveThirtyEight had it at 1-in-3,000.

“We actually played a really good game,” Morgan said. “We had control of the game the whole time. We had control of the tempo, and then they played perfect basketball the last 45 seconds.

“They played perfect basketball for that 45 seconds, and they came back and got it.”

The ending – full of inexplicable turnovers, a whistle that went against them and huge plays by the Aggies – was the lowpoint. Contrasting it with the high points is what makes the emotional toll on UNI so remarkable.

This was a team that was under .500 on Jan. 27. They won 12 of their next 13, including three in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament – besting Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Wichita State in the semis – to make the NCAA tournament. Then came Jesperson’s spot-on heave against Texas.

This was a team with an air of invincibility.

“These guys thought they were going to beat everybody,” Jacobson said. “(Eventual West Region champ) Oklahoma was terrific but we were at the point with these guys, it didn’t matter. They thought we would beat them or Golden State.

“You name it. They thought we were going to beat everybody.”

In a way, the Panthers weren’t wrong. It took an act of God to beat them.

“We were playing some of the best basketball we’ve ever played,” Morgan said. “Guys were hitting shots, making plays, playing defense. We were playing really good basketball at the end of March there and on into the tournament.”

Then it was as if David’s slingshot backfired.

“At the end of the day, there are certain things that are what they are,” Jacobson said. “We just did one of them. That’s going to be what it is. There’s no reason for me to try to change that narrative or to defend it or to make sense of it because facts are facts. This is what it is.

“So that’s what we’re going to be associated with. So I don’t spend any time thinking about it.”

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 20: Matt Bohannon #5 of the Northern Iowa Panthers sits on the court after a play in the second half against the Texas A&M Aggies during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 20, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This isn’t the first time Northern Iowa has found itself very publicly at a crossroads.

Six years ago, it was a very different one, but a fork in the road nonetheless.

Ali Farokhmanesh delivered on the ultimate heat check to beat top-seeded Kansas to put the Panthers in the Sweet 16 and the national consciousness.

Responding to that level of success, seemingly out of nowhere, can, in its own way, be just as problematic as reacting to failure.

“There was an excitement after the Sweet 16,” Jacobson said, “but I think there was also a little bit of, alright this is great but this could be the only time.”

The Panthers now, though, have a foundation of success to lean against and propel off of. They missed the NCAA tournament for the four years after that Sweet 16, but have now won tourney games in back-to-back years and had one MVC player of the year in Seth Tuttle and could have another this year in Morgan.

UNI has to respond to that catastrophe, but they’re not building from scratch.

“The feeling now is we will do it again,” Jacobson said. “Where after 2010, we weren’t quite there yet. Now, when you see people and talk to people and I see our guys, now everyone is like, ok, yeah, we’re going to do it again.”

The Panthers have the roster to make a return trip to the Big Dance. Morgan may be the best player in the league. Klint Carlson, Bennett Koch, Wyatt Lohaus and Ted Friedman all played against Texas A&M and are back. They’ve added Iowa State transfer Jordan Ashton and have a number of players eligible after redshirt seasons last year.

UNI already has wins over Arizona State and Oklahoma, and played No. 11 Xavier tough in an eight-point loss on Sunday night.

“There’s nothing we can do to go back and change what happened, no matter how much we wish that could be,” Morgan said. “That’s something that’s over and done with. It wasn’t what we were expecting at all or how we wanted it to go but that’s over with now.”

It’s over, but not forgotten. Scars heal, but they don’t disappear. Memories may fade, but that pain remains visceral.

“They’re motivated by knowing we had another game in us,” Jacobson said. “We should have played one more game, and everyone knows it. There’s a lot of motivation in that.”

Three LSU players accused of shooting paintballs at pedestrian

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Three LSU basketball players were issued a summons earlier this month for allegedly shooting paintballs at a pedestrian, according to a report from the Daily Reveille.

The incident involving the three players, Galen Alexander, Wayde Sims and Mayan Kiir, occurred on June 16.

“I’m aware of the situation and we are dealing with the matter internally,” first-year Tigers coach Will Wade said in a statement, according to The Advocate. “I’m extremely disappointed in these players and the poor judgement they used. This is no way to represent LSU or our basketball program. They have a clear understanding of what our expectations are as a program both on and off the court.”

Alexander and Kiir are both freshmen while Sims is a sophomore who averaged 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in 19 minutes per game last season.

Grayson Allen is…funny?

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The last year led to a lot of people having opinions on Grayson Allen. The Duke star invited most of them thanks to his tripping and his outbursts, as well as the simple fact he plays for the Blue Devils, who always seem to attract plenty of hate from the masses.

While Allen is one of college basketball’s best players, he’s also one of its most ridiculed. More people than not probably have a poor opinion about the guy due to his bizarre tripping habit and the bench meltdown from last season. He’s an easy target that brought a lot of criticism on himself with his actions.

This summer, though, Allen has started to show another side to his personality through social media. It turns out he might actually be funny.

The world is full of surprises.

Here’s an example from today, with Allen not only some comedy chops, but some self-deprecation and self-awareness – two important traits for someone who might need some reputation rehab – as he pokes fun of the Internet’s suggestion that he’s a dead ringer for Texas senator Ted Cruz, as well as Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, apparently.

That was just the most recent example, though. Earlier this month, he ribbed maybe the Internet’s only more favorite villain, LaVar Ball.

And before that, he had some fun with the fact that he’ll almost assuredly be tabbed to our Perry Ellis All-Stars team for his final collegiate season this fall.

So, yeah, Grayson Allen’s rep took a bunch of hits last year for some bad behavior. Maybe there’s more there, though.

IUPUI to become Horizon League’s 10th member

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The Horizon League officially announced this week that IUPUI will be replacing Valparaiso as the league’s 10th member. Valpo left to replace Wichita State in the Missouri Valley.

“We are excited to welcome IUPUI to the Horizon League family,” Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone said. “The Jaguars bring us tremendous competitive potential, particularly in men’s basketball, along with an engaged and energized city. Their addition solidifies our broad community partnerships in Indianapolis and is the right school at the right time.”

IUPUI — which stands for Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis — has been a member of the Summit League, which will be left with eight teams now that the Jaguars have departed. They’ve made it to one NCAA tournament, back in 2003, and have been a full-fledged member of Division I for 19 years. That was the year before NBA point guard George Hill enrolled. Current head coach Jason Gardner has been there for three years but has yet to record a winning season; IUPUI has not been over .500 since 2011, when Ron Hunter was still the head coach.

“We are excited about engaging with the other Horizon League member institutions to enhance the overall competitiveness of the league,” said IUPUI Director of Athletics Dr. Roderick Perry. “As an institution and athletics department, our mission, vision, and core values align closely with the Horizon League. This is an important step forward in the life of our athletics department.”

Former Louisville standout Chris Jones shot in Memphis

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Former Louisville point guard Chris Jones was shot while playing basketball in his native Memphis on Tuesday night.

According to a report from FOX 13 in Memphis, shortly after 11 p.m. shots rang out on in Halle Park after an altercation on the court. Two people were taken to the hospital, one with a head injury stemming from a fight. The other was Jones, who was shot in the leg twice, according to the Courier-Journal. His injuries are not life-threatening and he has already been released from the hospital, according to Steve Forbes, his former Junior College coach.

Jones played at Melrose High in Memphis before spending two years at Northwest Florida Junior College and two more seasons at Louisville.

This past year, he spent time playing professionally in Greece and in France, although he played just a grand total of three games in the two leagues.

Perhaps the craziest part about this story is that Jones was shot on a court that is next to a police station. This is a screengrab from FOX 13’s live shot from the basketball courts, and you can see the police cars in the station’s parking lot in the back ground:

Preaching patience, new Pitt AD says hoops program “a complete rebuild”

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Things did not go particularly well for Kevin Stallings in his first year at Pitt. The program, which essentially pushed Jamie Dixon out the door for being consistently good but not often enough great, struggled, going 16-17 overall and 4-14 in the ACC, just two games out of the cellar.

On top of that, six players prematurely left the program this spring.

Not great, especially when you’ve got a new boss that didn’t hire you, as is the case for Stallings with new Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke, who came aboard in March. In her first meeting with Stallings, Lyke asked a rather blunt question.

“Do you want to be here?” according to the Beaver County Times.

Stallings answered that he did, and his new athletic director would appear to be willing to give her predecessor’s hire time to reclaim and rebuild the program.

“It’s a steep climb, if you will,” Lyke said. “It’s not something that’s going to come easy and it takes an incredible amount of work.”

Stallings’ personal reputation took a significant amount of damage this spring when he attempted to block Cameron Johnson from an intra-ACC transfer to North Carolina. NBC Sports’ Scott Phillips called him a “town-deaf clown” in his attempt to keep Johnson from being a Tar Heel, a position he later relinquished, allowing Johnson to head to Chapel Hill.

Losing Johnson certainly won’t help Stallings and the Panthers recover from the difficult first season. Pitt didn’t hit any grand-slams in recruiting but is adding four-star guard Marcus Carr in its 2017 class.

The immediate outlook doesn’t look particularly bright, but Pitt appears to be positioning itself to exhibit some patience.

“If you look at the team, it is a complete rebuild,” Lyke said. “So I do think that (Stallings) is going to need a little time to develop it.

“But, we’ve got to be headed in the right direction. There’s some things that have got to get better and noticeable improvements. I’ve already seen those things start to happen.”