Maurice Newby. Ben Jacobson (the player, not the coach). Ali Farokhmanesh. Wes Washpun.
A growing history of memorable buzzer-beating shots is building at Northern Iowa. Not coincidentally, so is a record of postseason success.
Washpun’s stepback 17-footer hit the back of the rim, went straight up and rattled in to give the Panthers a 56-54 win over Evansville in the 40th annual Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and the 26th edition of the event as Arch Madness. Northern Iowa won its second consecutive MVC tourney title, its fourth in the last eight years and its fifth overall, once again establishing the purple and gold as the team to beat when this conference gathers at the end of the season in St. Louis.
UNI will make its seventh trip to the NCAA Tournament in 13 years. The school from Cedar Rapids has become a postseason regular, and also has shown the Valley is far more than just Wichita State, even at a time when it waits for some of its signature programs to get back on their feet.
The Panthers run through this year’s Arch Madness should be remembered for a long time, as should the 2016 event itself. Eight of the nine games were decided by 10 points or less. Not since the terrific 1999 tourney, when all nine games were decided by single digits, has this event been more consistently competitive.
Washpun’s shot instantly becomes one of the greatest in UNI history, but he has company. Newby hit a three-pointer in the final seconds to give the 14th-seeded Panthers a stunning upset of Missouri in the 1990 NCAA Tournament. Jacobson the player-who shares the same name as the current coach-hit a three at the buzzer to beat Wichita State in Feb. 2005, a win that helped UNI earn an unlikely at-large bid to the NCAAs. Farokhmanesh of course hit a dagger to beat UNLV in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tourney, then in the second round drilled an audacious pull-up 3 on a fast break in the final minute against Kansas, which made CBS analyst Dan Bonner memorably exclaim “you can’t be serious with that shot!”
Washpun also was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and undoubtedly his will go down as one of the all-time clutch performances in this event’s history. In all three games he scored a huge bucket in the final minute, also putting the Panthers ahead for good with less than a minute left against Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals and draining a jumper with 18 seconds left in overtime that was the nail in Wichita State’s coffin in the semis…
As much as Northern Iowa deserves all the credit for its run through the tourney, it’s hard not to feel for Evansville. The Purple Aces were crushed after the loss, with the tears flowing not long after the final buzzer, the understanding that they had come so close to realizing a dream only to fall just short.
Evansville showed remarkable heart rallying from a 17-point deficit and taking the lead with two minutes left. D.J. Balentine put the Aces on his back, scoring the team’s final eight points, including a double-clutch reverse layup to tie it with 25 seconds left. It was a terrific final impression left on this conference by a player who has scored more than 2,000 career points but still probably never quite received the due he deserves.
We’ll miss watching Balentine work like a master in Evansville’s motion offense, curling and flaring off screens like few players these days. Just as much, the Purple Aces sure seemed like a class act bunch, from head coach Marty Simmons to players like Balentine, Adam Wing and Jaylon Brown. In defeat, Evansville gained a whole lot of respect and likely some new fans watching on a national television audience, meaning this is a team that won’t be forgotten soon…
As could be expected, MVC coaches were united in their belief that Wichita State should receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, even after its narrow loss to UNI in the semifinals.
“Yeah, I absolutely do,” said Northern Iowa coach Jacobson, “I don’t think there’s any question that they will get an at-large bid. You know, the tournament when Fred (VanVleet) didn’t play, those games have to be looked at. My understanding is that the committee takes that into consideration. And outside of that, they’ve had the kind of year when Fred has been healthy, they’ve played like the team that should be in the NCAA Tournament, so I don’t think there’s any question that they get a bid.”
“For sure, for sure,” said Loyola coach Porter Moser when asked if he thought the Shockers were an NCAA tourney team. “I know you hear-you watch Selection Sunday all the time, and you hear the different things they say. Fred makes a huge difference, and he was out for those games.
“But to do what they do, to go in the Valley and to win 16 games in the Valley and to do it when everybody-they attract the biggest crowd everywhere they go. They attract the road crowd. There’s no question they should be in. To me, it’s not even a question. They’re in, in my opinion.”
The MVC Tournament eclipsed the 50,000 mark for attendance for the 14th straight year, drawing 50,021 spectators over four days. It was a very good crowd, and probably would’ve been considerably higher if Wichita State had advanced to the final and/or if Illinois State had stuck around for at least one more day, as there were plenty of red in the Scottrade Center Friday night for the Redbirds’ surprising loss to sixth-seeded Indiana State. The tourney also is still waiting for sizeable fan bases from Bradley, Missouri State and, to a lesser degree, Southern Illinois to make their way en masse to St. Louis again. If/when those programs return to prominence, it should provide a considerable bump at the gate, even if some of it comes at the expense of other schools…
Finally, just a note to add about this event, and what a well-run tournament it is. The MVC, Scottrade Center and St. Louis has consistently put on a terrific event for many years, rarely messing with a formula that works and only making measured improvements. It’s a winning formula, and coupled with the bigger-than-many-think fan bases in this league, makes for a terrific experience every year.