Hoop dreams become a reality in Iowa

You’ll never forget it. Years down the road, even when the specific details and exact dates fade, the feeling will always be there – like an old, familiar friend.

The memories. The moments. The experience.

March 17 and 18, 2016. A 36-hour stretch of hoop hysteria unlike any our state has collectively witnessed before.

On Thursday, Des Moines gained instant credibility as a rookie NCAA Tournament host. Hours later, Iowa State defeated Iona in Denver to reach the second round.

On Friday, Adam Woodbury and the Hawkeyes beat the buzzer in Brooklyn with a dramatic overtime win over Temple. Northern Iowa then brought the final session to a rousing conclusion when Paul Jesperson banked home a half-court shot at the horn in Oklahoma City to eliminate Texas.

This isn’t just about listing the accomplishments – which came, relatively speaking, in almost simultaneous fashion – of our capital city, the Cyclones, the Hawkeyes and the Panthers on paper, though. Words, pictures and even video simply aren’t enough.

Iowans were blessed with the unadulterated pride and sheer emotion that can make this time of year so very special. Our allegiances didn’t matter. Our level of interest in basketball didn’t matter. This game brought us all together for two wonderful days of ”where were you when” and ”did you see that?” moments.

And it was fun.

We awakened on Saturday morning at the center of the March Madness universe. Only one other state – Indiana, where basketball is a virtual religion – had three teams still standing in the NCAA Tournament. California? Zero. Michigan? Zero. Texas? One.

Us. Iowa. The wrestling hotbed. Overall population: 3.1 million. Three teams in the Big Dance for just the third time ever (and second in as many seasons).

The Cyclones went from preseason Top-10 to eight losses in the Big 12. The Hawkeyes dropped six of their last eight games, including a laugher to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament. The Panthers went through a similar swoon in January, and were swept by lowly Loyola during the regular season.

All three teams were the toast of the town at one point. All three were later left for the vultures. Yet all three were still dancing with just 32 programs left on the floor – a first for our state.

The particulars don’t matter anymore. Winning ugly is always pretty in March. The heroics of Woodbury and Jesperson – regardless of why they were necessary – were a thing of beauty.

And something we will always remember.

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 sports@messengernews.net