Northern Iowa Panthers

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 20:  Klint Carlson #2 of the Northern Iowa Panthers reacts after being defeated by the Texas A&M Aggies 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 Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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.”

POSTERIZED: Wes Washpun dunks on Evansville big man

Northern Iowa guard Wes Washpun (11) shoots as Northern Iowa guard Matt Bohannon (5) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015, in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)
AP Photo/Doug McSchooler
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Northern Iowa’s pulled off some major upsets this season, beating both North Carolina and Iowa State, but they haven’t been able to maintain the level of consistency needed to threaten Wichita State in the Missouri Valley. Wednesday night the Panthers knocked off Evansville 57-54, with senior guard Wes Washpun being a key contributor in the win.

Washpun, who was a handful against both the Tar Heels and Cyclones, finished the game with a team-high 14 points and four assists. Two of those points came in impressive fashion, as he turned the corner on a ball screen and threw down an emphatic one-handed dunk on Evansville big man Egidijus Mockevicius.

Yeah, Wes can get up.

Issues on both ends result in No. 1 North Carolina’s first loss

Roy Williams
AP Photo/Charlie Niebergall
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Come Monday we’ll have a new team atop the national polls, all because the shorthanded occupant of the top spot could not maintain a 16-point second half lead.

No. 1 North Carolina scheduled their game at Northern Iowa as a homecoming of sorts for senior point guard Marcus Paige, who is currently sidelined with a broken bone on his right hand. But what would have been a tricky matchup even with Paige on the floor turned into a nightmare of sorts as the second half wore on, with the Panthers outscoring UNC 31-11 over the final 17:40 to win by the final score of 71-67.

UNI certainly deserves credit for their play both offensively and defensively in making the comeback, but they had some help in the form of a visiting team that lost focus. After doing a good job of finding quality looks on offense, including scoring on their first four possessions of the second half, the Tar Heels hit s dry spell. The ball didn’t move as crisply as it did earlier in the game and the player movement wasn’t as sound either.

So even with Justin Jackson scoring 25 points in his best performance of the season to date, these issues were bound to catch up with North Carolina playing against a team as sound defensively as UNI. The three perimeter players who played so well in their first three victories, Joel Berry II, Nate Britt and Theo Pinson, all struggled Saturday afternoon. The trio accounted for 11 points (4-for-16 FG), nine assists and eight turnovers on the day.

That’s something North Carolina can make up for when Paige is in the lineup. But in this period where their best ball-handler and scorer is on the bench, the play of the guards who normally would be in supplementary roles becomes even more important.

The bigger concern coming out of the second half was North Carolina’s play defensively. The Tar Heels had no answer for guards Matt Bohannon and Wes Washpun, who combined to score 26 of their 40 in the game’s final 20 minutes. Some of the responsibility for that can be placed on the guards, but there were also poor defensive rotations on ball screens that led to Washpun (five second-half assists) getting opportunities to either score himself or find open teammates (Bohannon hit three three-pointers).

Of UNI’s final 31 points Washpun had a hand in 25 of them, scoring ten and assisting on 15. That speaks to both the senior’s impact on the game and North Carolina’s inability to slow him down.

Ultimately it’s only November 21, so Roy Williams and his team have plenty of time to work out the kinks on both ends of the floor. It was known that the loss of an All-American has a noticeable impact on how a team performs, so UNC going through an adjustment period is of no surprise. But if the team needed a reminder that their margin for error shrinks significantly without Marcus Paige on the court, they received it in his home state.

Former Clemson point guard Rod Hall headed to Northern Iowa – to play football

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When the Clemson Tigers’ basketball season ended at the ACC tournament in March, so ended the college career of point guard Rod Hall. In four seasons at the school the 6-foot-1 Hall averaged 7.2 points and 3.0 assists per game, and being a good athlete has opened up other avenues for him. In April he worked out for some NFL teams, despite not playing football since high school, and Hall also entertained the idea of playing a season of college football.

According to the Greenville News Hall has decided to make the trek up to Cedar Falls, Iowa, where he’ll join the Northern Iowa football program. In an interview with the paper, Hall noted that playing a season will help him reach his goal of getting a shot in the NFL.

“I’ll get a good bit of reps in school and get familiar with football all over again,” said Hall, who was courted by smaller nearby football programs before receiving a call two weeks ago from Northern Iowa assistant head coach Brandon Lynch, a fellow Augusta native.

Hall visited Northern Iowa on Wednesday. He was so enamored with the program he canceled any additional visits he had scheduled with other schools.

“I just know I have a good chance to get in and play as soon as I get there,” Hall said. “They are switching the offense to more of a no-huddle, and I know I can pick up on things easily.”

Hall, who went through wide receiver and defensive back drills during his workouts for NFL teams before suffering a hamstring injury, will play offense at UNI. Hall isn’t the first college basketball player to make the move to the gridiron after playing four seasons of hoops, with former Miami forward/tight end Jimmy Graham (now with the Seahawks) being a prominent example.

Given his success as a high school football player (he was all-state as a senior), it’ll be interesting to see if Hall can turn this season at Northern Iowa into a professional career.

Sunday’s Snacks: Coastal Carolina, Northern Iowa and North Florida headed to NCAA tournament

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GAME OF THE DAY: William & Mary 92, Hofstra 91 (2OT)

Marcus Thornton, who scored 37 points, forced overtime by making two free throws with 23 seconds remaining in regulation, and his pass to Daniel Dixon led to the game-winning three with eight tenths of a second remaining in double overtime. Thornton’s point total is a CAA tournament single-game record, and Omar Prewitt added 33 points as the Tribe moved to within one win of its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Juan’ya Green led the Pride with 26 points and seven assists, and Dion Nesmith added 21 points and five assists before fouling out. Not only was this the game of the day, but it was also one of the best games of the season to date.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

1. No. 11 Northern Iowa 69, Illinois State 60

Bubble teams across the country can breathe a sigh of relief (for the time being), as the Panthers erased a 14-points halftime deficit to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Seth Tuttle, who was held in check in the first half, got going in the second and finished with 15 points and nine rebounds and Nate Buss added 15 points off the bench. And Jeremy Morgan’s contributions can’t be overlooked either, as he hit two key three-pointers during UNI’s early second half surge. Daishon Knight scored 16 points and Deontae Hawkins added 14 for the Redbirds, who may have played their way into an NIT berth with their showing this weekend.

2. No. 6 Wisconsin 72, No. 23 Ohio State 48

The Badgers capped their regular season with a dominant win in Columbus, and outside of the Buckeyes closing to within ten early in the second half this one wasn’t all that close. Frank Kaminsky scored 20 points and Bronson Koenig added 15 for Wisconsin, which will be the top seed in the Big Ten tournament. Ohio State’s loss means that Purdue will be the four-seed, and they get the final double-bye in Chicago as a result.

3. No. 10 Maryland 64, Nebraska 61

The Terrapins capped their inaugural season in the Big Ten with a 14th victory, as they beat the Huskers in Lincoln. Melo Trimble accounted for 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists, and Dez Wells posted a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds to lead the way. Maryland, which has won seven straight games, will go into the Big Ten tournament as the two-seed. As for Nebraska, they’ll be the 12-seed and their loss makes Minnesota the 11-seed.

STARRED

1. William & Mary’s Marcus Thornton

Thornton scored 37 points and grabbed six rebounds in the Tribe’s 92-91 double overtime win over Hofstra.

2. Iona’s A.J. English and Isaiah Williams

Enghlish scored 29 points and Williams 27 in the Gaels’ 95-77 win over Monmouth. The two combined to shoot 16-for-25 from beyond the arc.

3. Stony Brook’s Jameel Warney

Warney tallied 24 points, 14 rebounds and three assists in the Seawolves’ 79-77 win at Vermont to advance to the America East title game.

4. South Dakota’s Brandon Bos

Bos shot 7-for-12 from the field and 10-for-11 from three, scoring a career-high 29 points in the Coyotes’ 82-73 win over Fort Wayne. Bos also grabbed seven rebounds and dished out five assists.

STRUGGLED

1. Ohio State’s Sam Thompson

While Thompson did grab six rebounds, he scored just two points and shot 0-for-7 from the field.

2. Mercer’s Jibri Bryan and Phillip Leonard

The guards struggled in the Bears’ 52-49 loss to Furman, combining to score six points (all by Leonard) on 1-for-16 shooting from the field.

3. Western Carolina’s James Sinclair Jr. 

Sinclair Jr. scored 16 points in the Catamounts’ loss to Wofford, but he did so on 5-for-19 shooting from the field.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 22 SMU won its first regular season conference title since 1993, as they beat Tulsa 67-62 in Dallas. The Mustangs won despite Tulsa’s James Woodard going off from three, as he shot 10-for-16 from beyond the arc and scoring 30 points.

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS

  • America East semis: Stony Brook will get another shot at earning that elusive NCAA tournament berth, as they won 79-77 at Vermont with Jameel Warney scoring 24 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. They’ll visit regular season champion Albany next Saturday, as the Great Danes held off New Hampshire 60-58. Will Brown’s team is looking to make its second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
  • Atlantic Sun final: North Florida will make its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, as they beat USC Upstate 63-57 in Jacksonville. Matthew Driscoll’s team went on a 12-0 second half run after the Spartans took a 48-44 lead with 9:13 remaining.
  • Big South final: Cliff Ellis’ Coastal Carolina Chanticleers will make their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, as they beat Winthrop 81-70. Warren Gillis tallied 22 points and six assists, and Elijah Wilson added 19 off the bench to lead the way for the Chanticleers.
  • MAAC semis: Top-seed Iona made a MAAC tournament single-game record 19 three-pointers in their 95-77 win over Monmouth. Isaiah Williams was responsible for nine of those makes, scoring 27 points on 9-for-15 shooting from deep. And for the third consecutive year Iona will take on rival Manhattan in the title game, as the Jaspers eliminated Saint Peter’s. Iona won in 2013, with Manhattan returning the favor last season.
  • Patriot semis: Both road teams won Sunday, with Lafayette beating regular season champ Bucknell 80-74 and American winning 73-62 at Colgate. Lafayette will host the title game Wednesday night. Bucknell’s loss means that this is the first time in the history of the Patriot League tournament that the top seed has not at least reached the final.
  • SoCon semis: Top-seed Wofford is now one win away from its second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, as they beat Western Carolina 73-61. Spencer Collins led the way for the Terriers with 17 points, shooting 10-for-13 from the foul line. They’ll take on 10-seed Furman on Monday, as the Paladins (the lowest seed in the tournament) continued their improbable run through the tournament with a 52-49 win over Mercer.
  • Summit quarters: Brandon Bos scored 29 points as South Dakota beat Fort Wayne 82-73. The Coyotes led by 19 at the half, but the Mastodons scored 50 second-half points to close the gap. Also advancing was Oral Roberts, which made eight of ten free throws over the final 38 seconds to hang on for a 58-56 win over IUPUI. Monday’s semifinals: No. 1 South Dakota State vs. No. 5 South Dakota, No. 2 North Dakota State vs. No. 3 Oral Roberts.

NOTABLES

  • D.J. Newbill’s three-pointer as time expired gave Penn State a 79-76 win over Minnesota, which has now lost eight conference games by six points or less. On Wednesday the Nittany Lions (13-seed) will take on Nebraska in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, and Minnesota (11-seed) will play Rutgers the same day.

Pregame Shootaround: Harvard hosts Yale with first place on the line in the Ivy League

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GAME OF THE DAY: Yale at Harvard, 8:00 p.m. (Ivy League Digital Network)

The Bulldogs and Crimson enter this game tied atop the Ivy League standings with matching 10-2 record, and the winner will be one win away from earning the league’s automatic bid. Harvard won the first meeting between the two, a two-point win in New Haven February 7, with two Wesley Saunders free throws with six seconds remaining being the difference. Two of the Ivy’s best players will be involved, with Saunders leading the Crimson and forward Justin Sears being Yale’s best option. Both teams are solid defensively, but Yale has to shoot better than the 31.5 percent they shot in the first meeting.

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: Bowling Green at Buffalo, 7:00 p.m. (ESPN3)

Seeding in next week’s MAC tournament is still up in the air in many cases, with the Falcons and Bulls looking to improve their standing with a win Friday night. Chris Jans has put together a very successful season in his first year at Bowling Green, and the Falcons have relied on their defense to make that charge. They limited Buffalo to 35.7 percent shooting in the first meeting but still lost by 12 due to their own offensive issues (4-for-20 3PT). It goes without saying that Bowling Green will need to shoot better if they’re to beat a Buffalo squad led by forward Justin Moss and guard Shannon Evans, with those two combining to average just over 30 points per game.

WHO’S ON UPSET ALERT?: Cleveland State (vs. Detroit), 9:30 p.m.

The two meetings between the Vikings and Titans were decided by a total of five points, with CSU winning the first meeting by four and a Juwan Howard Jr. three being the difference in the rematch. Howard Jr. will be the focus of Cleveland State’s defensive efforts, but Paris Bass is capable of putting points on the board as well with his 28-point outing in a loss to Oakland February 15 serving as an example. Cleveland State has three players averaging double figures, with guards Trey Lewis and Charlie Lee leading the way on the perimeter and Anton Grady patrolling the interior.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

1. No, 14 Baylor looks to rebound from a two-point overtime loss to Texas with a win over Texas Tech in the regular season finale for both (9:00 p.m., ESPN2). This game could be tougher than one would anticipate, as the Red Raiders lost by just five in the first meeting February 17.

2. No. 8 Wichita State plays in the first game of the day at Arch Madness in St. Louis, as they take on Southern Illinois (1:00 p.m., ESPN3). The Shockers swept the season series, and they’ve won eight straight since losing at Northern Iowa January 31.

3. Speaking of the Panthers, No. 11 Northern Iowa takes on Bradley in another Arch Madness quarterfinal. The teams last played February 21, when UNI limited the Braves to 39 points in a 17-point home win.

4. No. 25 Murray State takes the court for the first time in this year’s OVC tournament, as they’ll take on Morehead State in the semifinals. Led by guard Cameron Payne, Steve Prohm’s Racers have won 24 straight games and they rolled through league play with a 16-0 record.

5. Kent State can wrap up a share of the MAC East title with a win over Akron (7:00 p.m., ESPN2), and they’ll share the title with the winner of the Bowling Green/Buffalo matchup. Akron won by nine February 10, but the Golden Flashes were playing without their leading scorer and rebounder in Jimmy Hall due to injury.

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS

  • Big South (quarterfinals): Longwood vs. Charleston Southern, Radford vs. Winthrop, Gardner-Webb vs. High Point and UNC Asheville vs. Coastal Carolina.
  • Colonial (first round): Towson vs. Elon, College of Charleston vs. Drexel
  • Horizon (second round): UIC vs. Oakland, Detroit vs. Cleveland State
  • Missouri Valley (quarterfinals): Southern Illinois vs. No. 8 Wichita State, Evansville vs. Illinois State, Bradley vs. No. 11 Northern Iowa, Loyola (IL) vs. Indiana State
  • Ohio Valley (semifinals): Morehead State vs. No. 25 Murray State, Belmont vs. Eastern Kentucky
  • Southern (first round): Samford vs. UNCG, Furman vs. The Citadel
  • West Coast (first round): Pacific vs. San Francisco, Loyola Marymount vs. Santa Clara