ST. LOUIS — Body language can be revelatory.
Whether relaxed or tense, how a team responds mentally to crunchtime situations often plays a significant part in a game’s outcome. As Northern Iowa took the floor for overtime on Saturday against Wichita State in its Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinal, the Panthers were cracking up.
Coach Ben Jacobson played the role of a standup comedian of sorts in the huddle, making his players laugh. Breaking the tension in a small moment like that was enough to refocus a UNI team that upset the Shockers, 57-52 in overtime, and is one step away from a goal they set before this season — to make this year as special as last year.
“Running over to the huddle, I was just happy — and so were the guys — that we got to go for another five minutes, and we got to the huddle and Coach puts this smile on his face and starts cracking jokes. I was like, ‘That’s a little different,’” said senior guard Matt Bohannon. “We were all a little relaxed and were like, ‘OK, Coach believes in us.’ He had that calm, cool, collected attitude. It carried throughout the whole overtime.
“(The jokes) were just something kind of silly, but made us relax and really got us through that overtime.”
Jacobson was able to be that way because — as he’s repeated over and over in the last two weeks — he believes this team is playing the best basketball it’s played, and the confidence he has in them to come through couldn’t really be higher.
That’s evidenced by the fact that UNI didn’t score for the first 7:49 of the game, and was down 10-0 to start. The Panthers (21-12, 11-7 MVC) slowly but surely worked their way back in a game that was equally ugly as it was intense.
The beauty in that was not lost on Jacobson, who caught himself stepping back from the game and recognizing how special it was that two high-quality teams were giving each other their best shot. He said it made things that much more satisfying to get the win in the end.
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“I don’t (do that) very often. Maybe just a handful of games. I know I didn’t when I was an assistant coach. Maybe just a handful of times in my 10 years as a head coach where I thought, man, this game is — this is unbelievable. You’re lucky to be standing here watching these guys play,” Jacobson said. “I can count them on one hand for sure, and today was one of them, yeah. The last few minutes of regulation and overtime, yeah, I did. It felt like this was really pretty special to be a part of a game like this.
“We’re playing to go to the NCAA Tournament, so you want your guys to have success. You want them to have a shot, 40 minutes to get to the NCAA Tournament.”
UNI reached the Arch Madness final by way of another big game in a big situation from senior guard and Cedar Rapids Washington grad Wes Washpun, who finished with 20 points on 7 of 16 shooting, including a running bank shot with 0:18 left in overtime that put the game out of reach for Wichita State (24-8, 16-2).
Washpun has made a habit of coming up big in games with a lot at stake. He had 21 points and eight assists in a win against No. 1 North Carolina. He had 28 points and 11 assists in a win against No. 2/5 Iowa State.
And now this one.
He forced Fred VanVleet into a tough shot he missed at the end of regulation, part in parcel of his defense on the MVC’s Player of the Year throughout the game. VanVleet had just eight points on 2 of 9 shooting.
“I just want to go out there and play as hard as I can for my team, is really what it comes down to,” Washpun said. “I just tried to make the play, Coach puts the ball in my hands, and tells me to go out there and make a play, and that’s all I try to do out there.
“To go back and forth and have a chance to compete with a guy like (VanVleet), you can’t even describe what it’s like. You really can’t.”
UNI played the last 16:10 (11:10 of regulation and all five minutes of overtime) with the same lineup — Washpun, Bohannon, Jeremy Morgan, Wyatt Lohaus and Klint Carlson.
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Lohaus assisted on Morgan’s a 3-pointer in overtime that broke a tie, Bohannon forced a turnover that led to Washpun’s final runner in the lane, and Carlson got a handful of vital defensive rebounds in the final minutes of regulation and overtime — including the final rebound. Carlson’s nine points and nine rebounds were just another in a string of games in which he’s been on the floor in the most important parts of the game.
Carlson said after the game the confidence Jacobson and his teammates have in him is the biggest reason for it all. Jacobson said it’s easy to have confidence in Carlson and the rest of the guys when they respond to things the way the Panthers did Saturday.
It made it easy to go into the huddle and tell some jokes.
“I have not been involved in a game that is that close and with that much on the line, and guys are like really enjoying it, smiling and talking in a way that allows them to go out and make plays,” Jacobson said. “Today, man, that last five minutes in overtime, guys were loose, they were saying all the right things. It was really, really fun to be a part of that, and like I said, sometimes in those games, it isn’t as much fun, it gets a little tense. That was probably the thing I was most impressed with today.
“When that horn goes off and you win a game like this, you feel awfully good.”
Some happy Panthers in the locker room.
Posted by Colin McDonough on Saturday, March 5, 2016
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