NCAA hoops: Northern Iowa’s game plan works in slaying Tournament giant
By Jeffrey Lutz
OKLAHOMA CITY — Northern Iowa basketball fans aren’t the only ones celebrating the Panthers’ shocking 69-67 win over top- seeded Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.
There’s at least one other segment of the population that is just as jubilant.
“The 3-year-olds out there who picked Northern Iowa,” UNI guard Ali Farokhmanesh said.
Farokhmanesh has a lot to do with the joy in Cedar Falls and in Toddler Nation. Two days after providing the dagger with a three-pointer in UNI’s first-round win over UNLV, Farokhmanesh found himself wide open on the right wing after the Panthers broke KU’s full-court press.
With about 37 seconds on the clock and UNI nursing a one-point lead, the anticipated play was for Farokhmanesh to dribble and take time off the clock before he was fouled, or set up the offense.
That’s not how Farokhmanesh’s mind works, though. The 6-foot senior is always looking for the next important shot, and he didn’t need to look around much to find it Saturday. With plenty of time to think about it, Farokhmanesh decided his shot was the best one UNI was going to get. You know how this story ends.
“He made a shot that usually players don’t take and that coaches don’t let you take,” KU guard Brady Morningstar said. “He stepped up and knocked it down. What more can you say? It was a big-time shot whether he takes it or not. Obviously, he knew he was going to knock it down.”
Farokhmanesh’s shot was the ultimate big play from a team which never doubted its ability to make them. Freshman Jake Koch drew two charges down the stretch. His older brother Adam, a senior, rebounded a UNI miss and dunked to put the Panthers ahead 63-56 with 1:18 to play.
It’s the way the Missouri Valley Conference champion has played all season — let the defense keep them in the game, grind out quality possessions and wait for a difference-making shot or defensive stop when it matters. It’s a frustrating style to oppose, as most teams have found out.
“I think we just trust the system,” Farokhmanesh said. “We have 30 wins now, so it’s been working for the most part. Just have to trust it. We came out and we knew we would have to play just a little bit better. We didn’t have to play a ton better, but we would have to play a little better on every little step. Everybody kind of contributed in their own way.”
The Panthers entered the tournament with the same mindset they’ve had all season, feeling as if they had something to prove. Kansas center Cole Aldrich said this week that he didn’t remember playing against UNI’s Jordan Eglseder when the two were in high school in the upper Midwest.
Eglseder responded by nearly matching Aldrich’s output, delivering 14 points and five rebounds compared to Aldrich’s 13-and-10 line.
“It’s probably a lot easier to remember playing against him than someone remembering playing against me,” Eglseder said. “Hopefully he remembers now.”
The slights continued even after UNI’s win.
“We worked so hard for this all year, and to have a team that is not better than us come out and beat us, it’s tough,” KU forward Marcus Morris said.
The Panthers thrive on opinions that they’re not as good as their 30-4 record. While they’re looking for the next important shot, they usually find a doubter to silence, too.
“I feel like we still have more to prove,” Adam Koch said. “A lot of people look at us like we’re a Cinderella team, one that kind of doesn’t deserve everything that’s going on. That’s not the way we feel. We feel like we can win any game. The way we play, we can play with any team in the country.”