Every year it’s the same routine. Keep one eye half-heartedly on college basketball for four months while it’s football, hockey and professional basketball that really matter. Then the calendar flips to March, and everything changes. Time for the crash course. Who has good guard play? Which team can score the basketball? Are they long and athletic? Can they play team defense? We watch conference tournament games all day and listen to as many analysts toss out the afore mentioned clichés so we can make educated opinions come tournament time. For the fans, March is when college basketball becomes fun. For the schools involved, especially the smaller ones, March is when college basketball becomes everything.
March means everything for the small schools because it’s the one time in the kids’ lives when they can truly say, anything is possible. Some bow out early, others buckle in for the rollercoaster ride of a lifetime.
In 2016, the Northern Iowa Panthers went through loops and drops and hit breakneck speed before their rollercoaster came to screeching halt. They entered as the four-seed in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Not a complete unknown, but to the casual fan there might be a vague memory of the team in purple and yellow knocking off Kansas in the tournament back in 2010, or seeing this roster get their feet wet with an NCAA tournament win the year prior. But coming off a relatively disappointing regular season with the team’s best player from the year prior, Seth Tuttle, having graduated, the Panthers were on no one’s radar. BUT, there’s a reason we call it March Madness, and Northern Iowa proved yet again, the impossible IS possible once the calendar flips to March.
The panthers gutted out an overtime win behind Wes Washpun’s 20 points, keeping the dream alive.
UNI needed back-to-back-to-back wins in the conference tournament for an invitation to the big dance. After disposing of Southern Illinois, they faced the top seeded Wichita State Shockers, who fall right next to Gonzaga as perennial contenders amongst mid-major programs. The panthers gutted out an overtime win behind Wes Washpun’s 20 points, keeping the dream alive. The finals came against Evansville, whom they had split the two season’s meetings in two and three point games, respectively. In that game, the first true March Madness Moment came off the fingertips of Wes Washpun. After he hit the go ahead shot with 50 seconds to go, Evansville followed up a miss with a bucket to tie it, leaving Northern Iowa with a vacated shot clock and a chance to go dancing. Washpun brought the ball up, and calmly waited for the game clock to reach five before making his move. He started from a little left of center, faked left, crossed middle, pulled up, and fired. The ball hit back iron with 0.7 left on the clock and hung in the air longer than Bobby Orr did in 1970. The buzzer sounded and finally the ball fell through, prompting a celebration that resembled winning the NCAA tournament. But that’s why we live for March. We live for the moments that these kids will carry with them for a lifetime. And just when you think a team has had enough madness, the tournament begins.
Paul Jesperson put his name in the history books right then and there…
The Panthers came in as somewhat of a tournament darling following its heroics in the MVC Tournament. As an 11-seed, they faced Texas in the first round, coming in as slight underdogs. With 12 seconds left and a two point Northern Iowa lead in a back and forth affair, Texas inbounded the ball, hustled down the court, and tied it with 2.7 on the clock. Instead of opting for a timeout, the ball was inbounded to senior forward, Paul Jesperson, who dribbled around two defenders and right onto the middle of the half court logo. He heaved it with a second left, the buzzer sounded, AND IT WENT IN! Paul Jesperson put his name in the history books right then and there, and you can count me as one of the many at home who lost their minds watching the impossible happen. The next 40 hours must have been the greatest of Jesperson’s life. He and the team knew that whenever they head home, they would be greeted by the 40 000 people who call Cedar Hills home and receive a hero’s welcome.
The thing about the tournament, though, is tears of joy can turn into tears of despair in an instant. After the unimaginable high the Panthers experienced that night (no alcohol of course, there are underage players on the team), they had to win one more game against 3-seed Texas A&M to reach the Sweet Sixteen. A berth in the Sweet Sixteen is phenomenal on its own. But it also means a flight home and a couple days as gods on campus, before embarking for the next stop on the tournament road map. Those two days would have been like nothing these kids could have ever imagined.
Game over. Fat lady is singing. Pack your bags, because UNI’s ticket to the Sweet Sixteen is punched.
It seemed like destiny. The Panthers pounced on the Aggies, and led 69-57 with less than 40 second left. If you know basketball, you would say that lead is insurmountable. Game over. Fat lady is singing. Pack your bags, because UNI’s ticket to the Sweet Sixteen is punched. But the word impossible needs to be taken out of our vocabulary once March rolls around. After the broadcasters declared the game over, Texas A&M mounted the most staggering comeback I have ever seen. Yes, that includes LeBron and company coming back from 3-1 on the Warriors. Yes, that includes Tom Brady and the Patriots snatching the Falcons’ rings right off their fingers. Hell, it even includes the Red Sox breaking the curse by coming back from 3-0 over the Yankees. Maybe not the greatest comeback in history when accounting for the size of the moment, but, in a vacuum, I say it is absolutely the most unbelievable comeback/collapse I have ever seen.
Texas A&M won the game in overtime, and I honestly don’t know how anyone on that Northern Iowa roster could have slept that week. Paul Jesperson was less than 48 hours removed from the greatest moment of his life (I assume), and all that vanished over the course of 34 seconds on the game clock. I imagine those kids were still given a hero’s welcome coming off the plane in Cedar Hills, but I’m sure they didn’t feel like champions. Oh, how things can change.
March brings out the best in some and the worst in others. No lead is safe. No shot unmakable. David beats Goliath every year. Every year there is a story like Northern Iowa. Whether it’s 15-seed Lehigh beating 2-seed Duke or little-known Steph Curry from Davidson willing his team to the Elite Eight, something crazy will happen. Maybe this year we see the kids from Northern Kentucky who dreamt about playing for the Wildcats, come together and pull of the upset against Kentucky. Maybe a player we’ve never heard of puts his name on the map with a couple of signature performances. Who knows what this March will bring?
So find your friends, pick up wings and beer, and buckle up for the Madness.