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OKLAHOMA CITY – There must be something in the water in Oklahoma City for the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team.
Specifically, inside Chesapeake Energy Arena and Visitor’s Locker Room A.
Maybe the Panthers being in the same building and locker room as the 2010 trip south didn’t have a direct effect on the game. But it sure makes for some beautiful symmetry. In 2010 it was Ali Farohkmanesh and beating Kansas. In 2016 it was Paul Jesperson and a half-court buzzer beater to beat Texas, 75-72 and send UNI to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“There is no way for me to describe what happened at the end. Obviously the last time we were here in 2010, so many good memories from that trip. I don't have a way to describe it, and I don't have an answer,” said Coach Ben Jacobson. “I want them to play with all kinds of freedom, and I want them to play with as much confidence as they can possibly muster and have. What that had to do with the last shot tonight, right, I mean, that's lucky. What it had to do with Ali's shot, yeah, that probably had something to do with Ali's shot. And there are some other plays.
“We work extremely hard so that our guys, when it comes time to play, they play with all the confidence in the world. For me that's really the bottom line.”
Check and check on the freedom and confidence, Coach.
The Panthers got the ball back with 2.7 seconds left in the game after a runner fell for Texas’ Isaiah Taylor. Matt Bohannon inbounded up to Jesperson, who crossed over and heaved the shot that banked in at the buzzer.
MARCH IS SO MARCH RIGHT NOWPosted by CBS Sports on Friday, March 18, 2016
Typically in these situations over the last few months, it’s been Wes Washpun with the ball in his hands, but when Jesperson got it this time, there was no hesitation. It might’ve been a prayer, but it was answered in emphatic fashion.
“I can't say I've shot that shot in a long time," Jesperson said. "We used to mess around before practice a little bit and shoot those, but I don't think we've shot one of those this year.
“Before this game it was Wes who hit one at the end of the clock to bring us to this situation. Tonight I hit one at the end of the buzzer that sends us to a new day. It's been the deal the whole year. Different guys have stepped up when they needed to and have always been willing to take big shots.”
Big shots, indeed.
Just like in St. Louis, when Washpun sent UNI to the NCAA Tournament with his buzzer beater to win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, those on the court and the bench mobbed Jesperson courtside, as he raised his hands in triumph.
It seems these moments and March go hand-in-hand. Even Taylor, who deservedly was devastated after the game, said “if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen this time of year.”
And for a guy like Jesperson – whose big moments have come this season, but not as frequently as others – it was one worth the wait. His teammates were almost happier than he was that he got to have a piece of that big-shot pie.
“I was behind him and just wanted to go and find him and tackle him to be honest,” said Washpun, who got to return the favor from two weeks ago. “I couldn't be happier for this guy. He deserves every moment of this. He puts in an incredible amount of time to his craft, and he deserves this moment.”
Washpun wasn’t the only one talking about Jesperson deserving it. Bohannon, who joked he ought to have gotten an assist on the shot, added to the praise.
Bohannon has talked a lot about the three seniors not wanting to be done. He drew from that well again in describing his point of view of the game-winner.
“That was a group of guys who didn’t want to quit. … It’s been a lot of fun to be in these situations and understand the game is never over, and if you believe, good things can happen,” Bohannon said. “That kid has had a heck of a season, and people might say he had a bit of a down stretch, but he’s still shooting the crap out of the ball.
“To see that hard work every day, it pushes you to be great, too. It’s pushed our younger guys and made them want to be just as good as he is. He’s set the stone for the future. I couldn’t be happier to call him a teammate and couldn’t be happier to see that thing go in.”
The guys sat huddled around phones, watching the replay of the final shot over and over inside that fateful locker room, as Jesperson did interview after interview and couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. Well past midnight, he hadn’t even had a chance to check his phone to sift through what was sure to be hundreds of messages and tweets.
Such special moments are made in March. UNI found that out in its trip to Oklahoma City in 2010, and was reminded once again Friday night. The only problem is the Panthers can’t celebrate too long.
Whether they or their fans are able to or not, they’ll have to sleep eventually. Until they do, the bank-in will play on repeat.
“When it left my hand, I felt like it had a chance, but obviously you never know with that. So just thankful it went in and thankful we get to live another day,” Jesperson said. “I looked over at my parents and my brothers when I was doing an interview out on the court, and kind of gave them a fist or whatever. They were smiling and extremely happy.
“I’ll go take an ice bath and lay down (now). I’m sure I’ll fall right to sleep.”
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