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.”

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.