CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s 2019-20 men’s basketball season will be remembered for multiple reasons.
After three straight seasons of .500 or below records, the Panthers flourished this season, finishing 25-6 overall and 14-4 in Missouri Valley Conference play.
A 70-43 rout of in-state rival Drake at Knapp Center in Des Moines on Feb, 29 clinched the MVC regular-season championship, UNI’s first in a decade.
Looking back now, after everything that’s taken place with the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent sports cancellations, senior guard Isaiah Brown says that win over the Bulldogs has stuck in his memory.
Brown is one of many of college basketball’s unfortunate stories as a result of the postseason cancellations. The senior guard played a pivotal role in what was by far the most successful season of his UNI career, and earned the MVC’s defensive MVP award. But his only opportunity to play postseason basketball — whether it was going to be in the NIT or NCAA Tournament — vanished in the span of a few days as the coronavirus’ impact on regular life grew.
“When it happened, it didn’t even really hit me that my college career was over, just because of how it was happening,” Brown said. “We kind of saw it coming (with) a lot of the conference tournaments getting canceled.”
Brown wasn’t the only UNI senior dealt the tough reality of postseason cancellations. Luke McDonnell, Lincoln Conrey, Spencer Haldeman and Justin Dahl have all had to deal with the fact their careers ended with a practice, rather than a championship or season-ending postseason loss.
“I was at home with my roommates in the living room and one of them was checking Twitter and they saw the tweet that basically said everything was canceled,” Dahl said. “The NBA canceling everything and all the other leagues postponing their stuff — I figured there was a good chance it was going to happen. So, it wasn’t shocking, but it was still heartbreaking.”
UNI head coach Ben Jacobson called a team meeting the morning after the cancellations. At that meeting, Jacobson made a point for his team to think positively instead of focusing on what they had lost.
“I talked about my feelings, that I do hurt for our seniors and for our team that had accomplished a lot and not able to see it through,” Jacobson said. “Then quickly shifted to, ‘guys, I want you to pop up here and want you to get on the board and I want you to write down something you’re grateful for.”
Jacobson described how Brown and all seven others who went to the whiteboard wrote about the team’s family atmosphere and strong bonds rather than their on-court accomplishments.
“I wrote ‘family away from home,’” Brown said. “Playing with these guys made it so easy for me to be far away from home just because of that family feeling we all have with each other. That bond that we’ve made over the four years.”
Brown and Dahl both mentioned a 79-76 win at then-no. 23 Colorado as one of their final season’s fondest memories.
Dahl also mentioned how tutelage from former UNI All-American and assistant coach Seth Tuttle helped him create a memorable senior season.
“When I first got (to UNI), I was a bit raw one could say,” Dahl admitted with a laugh. “(Associate head) coach (Kyle) Green worked me hard and helped me develop my touch. What (Tuttle) really did was he showed me how much of a difference-maker I could be on the court. He believed in me when he came here.”
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A large part of UNI’s resurgence to the top of the MVC, according to Brown, is Jacobson’s penchant for building his teams with four- and five-year players in an era of college basketball that’s ripe with transfers. Brown lauded Jacobson’s approach for the chemistry and camaraderie it builds that programs that leaning on transfers cannot replicate.
“When I hear Isaiah talk about (that), just really proud that our players believe in that part of it,” Jacobson said. “Because at the end of the day, that’s who we are.”