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OKLAHOMA CITY — Northern Iowa has itself a nickname. It elicits some laughs, but “Jake and the Giant Killers” has picked up some steam in the last few days as it circulated as a meme online and was inserted into play-by-play man Gary Rima’s emphatic call of the Texas buzzer-beater.
The Panthers have made the upset become routine. They’ve made the upset not an upset.
Coach Ben Jacobson and his players love that the name means they’ve gotten some big wins, but there’s a part of it that almost irks them a little bit. “Giant” implies the teams they’ve beaten are immeasurably better.
That’s not how they see things anymore.
“It’s a pretty awesome name, especially when you look back on all the success they’ve had before this year and the success we’re having this year,” said Paul Jesperson, whose half-court buzzer beater shot UNI past Texas on Friday night. “It means a lot to us, knowing we’re able to beat some of the teams we did this year and see some of the things we were able to do, but at the same time, we refer to ourselves as the giants, too. We by no means think we’re a mid-major program. We think we’re a bunch of high-major guys. We just try to go out and prove that we are.”
UNI will have a chance to take another step in proving just how giant they can be in facing No. 3-seed Texas A&M on Sunday at approximately 6:45 p.m. on truTV.
The Panthers (23-12) will face a trio of double-digit scorers in Danuel House, Jalen Jones and Tyler Davis from the SEC regular season champs, who measure 6-foot-7, 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-10, respectively. The Aggies (27-8) represent a different kind of size and speed than Texas, and one that carried them to the SEC Tournament championship game, which ended in a loss to Kentucky.
It’s a shot at a win against another power-5 conference team. A chance to slay another giant?
“Whatever people have to say, that’s fine. At the end of the day, we’re moving on and understand we’re about to play a very good basketball team,” said Matt Bohannon. “It’s a little different because I consider us just like them. We’re a good basketball team; we play hard and we’ve shown throughout the season we can beat anybody anywhere. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing; it doesn’t matter the name on their chest. We just want to come out and play the game like we know we can. If we do that, then we’re confident in the outcome.”
Living up to or defining a nickname isn’t their priority, but they sure aren’t going to argue against one — even if they hope it’s not necessary one day and believe it’s not necessary now.
At the very least, a nickname means recognition, and big things have happened.
“I’ll take anything, really, just as long as people know who we are,” Klint Carlson said with a laugh. “We’ve taken down a couple high-ranked teams, and I think it just means we’re ready to play anybody. We think and believe we can play with anybody. As long as we think that and not care what anybody else thinks, we’re good.”
UNI had some help in getting to this mindset.
Their famous visitor and Panther alum Kurt Warner has been around again this year, and Jacobson has leaned on him to help the guys with getting in the right frame of mind. Warner may not have specifically addressed the nickname “Jake and the Giant Killers,” but he did address the sentiment behind it with the players before the Panthers knocked off Texas.
Changing the conversation doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s cool to have a nickname that means they’ve gotten so many big wins. But eventually they’d love it to be irrelevant.
“(Kurt Warner’s) message this time around was about perception and reality, and about a change in perception. The only way to do that is to have your understanding of what your reality is. Our reality at Northern Iowa is we have a good team,” Jacobson said. “It’s a nice tagline. It’s fun. But at the end of the day it’s about the guys and what they’re doing, and what Kurt’s talked about with the guys this week. Perception and reality. What they’re doing right now, the perception is changing. The reality is starting to creep in there a little bit that our program is capable.”
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