The Northern Iowa men’s basketball team did this to themselves.
By “this,” I mean reaching the NCAA Tournament the year after losing their All-American forward and three of the team’s top four scorers to graduation.
By “this,” I mean emerging from the shadows of what was once a 2-6 Missouri Valley Conference record to win the league’s tournament championship.
By “this,” I mean defeating the likes of Top-25 heavyweights North Carolina, Iowa State and Wichita State — in Wichita — during the regular season.
By “this,” I mean winning consecutive last-second postseason games on improbable buzzer-beating shots that will be included in every March Madness highlight reel for years to come.
Sunday’s unprecedented — I use that word literally, because according to NCAA research, we’ve never seen anything like it in the history of college basketball — loss to Texas A&M in the second round of the Big Dance was a painful, emotional, dysfunctional mess. Fans were perplexed. Coaches were bewildered. Players were despondent.
There’s no way to sugarcoat losing a 12-point lead in 35 seconds. I watched it live, I re-watched the recording, I saw the highlights over and over again, I combed through the play-by-play, and I’m still trying to convince myself — or better yet, deny — that it actually happened.
I’d rather not dwell on the gory details now. We could armchair quarterback this thing to death, asking why head coach Ben Jacobson did this or why star point guard Wes Washpun did that. I’m sure they’re asking themselves the same questions today times a thousand.
It’s always easy to speak with the benefit of retrospect, especially from the comforts of our own living rooms. We’re not making physical, split-second decisions in real time. And trust me, no one would like a do-over more than the Panther players and staff. They’d gladly trade all of the disappointment and the frustration and the “teachable moments” in for one more minute on the court.
Here’s what I do know in the aftermath of this monumental moment: the world was introduced to the character and class of Matt Bohannon, Paul Jesperson and Washpun in the postgame press conference. Jacobson went against the wishes of the media, who had requested underclassmen Jeremy Morgan and Klint Carlson. The three seniors — who all had a hand in the chain of events that led to the devastating outcome — calmly, quietly and professionally answered questions with their coach instead.
Locally speaking, most of us have known all along that Jacobson runs a first-class program led by quality student-athletes. The rest of the country got to see it up close and personal under the most challenging of circumstances.
Until that point in time, Washpun was recognized for his late heroics on the court. Jesperson banked in the buzzer-beating half-court shot to sink Texas. They were on a relatively long list of talented players who had magical moments in a postseason full of them.
The unexpected, inexplicable adversity — and how the program handled it — suddenly became the story. Not only did it put a face to the names, but a heart, too.
To some, UNI’s legacy will forever be defined by what happened on Sunday night in Oklahoma City. To others, they’ll be remembered just as much for the thrilling MVC tourney title run and the opening-round Texas miracle.
I will always picture Jacobson, Bohannon, Jesperson and Washpun in that press room, fielding questions they didn’t want to answer and trying to explain emotions that words simply couldn’t capture.
Yes, the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team did this to themselves. They reached the ultimate highs before hitting a devastating low. Unexpected success, followed by unimaginable failure. And they owned it — all of it — for the world to see.
Like men. Like leaders. Like champions — in a way no tournament bracket could ever define.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org