When Paul Jespersen banked in a game-winning, half-court three-point to send the Northern Iowa Panthers past Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday night it was the fitting end to a day of upsets by double-digit seeded teams. For Northern Iowa, it was just another inexplicably dramatic moment for a program with but a single Sweet Sixteen in its history.
To understand Northern Iowa’s flair for the dramatic you have to go back more than 25 years to when the magic started.
Northern Iowa’s NCAA history — and its flair for the dramatic — began in 1990. Though it almost didn’t happen.
Head Coach Eldon Miller had been hired by Northern Iowa on February 27, 1986. Miller had been a successful coach at Wittenberg, Western Michigan and Ohio State before the Ohio State administration nudged him out the door. After being told he would not be returning to Ohio State during the season, he took the Buckeyes all the way to the NIT Championship.
Miller wasn’t an instant fix at Northern Iowa. The Panthers finished 13-15 in 1986-87 and 10-18 in 1987-88. The 1988-89 team was 19-9 overall and made it to the second round of the Association of Mid-Continent Universities (AMCU-8) Conference Tournament. That team, heavy with underclassmen, set up high expectations in 1989-90.
The 1989-90 team open the season 5-2 with no impressive wins and a pair of losses at Iowa State and blowout decision to Georgetown. On January 3, 1990, Northern Iowa showed its first flash of the magic to come. Hosting 20th-ranked Iowa in a game where 22,797 fans (a then-State record) filled the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Northern Iowa stunned the visiting Hawkeyes 77-74. Despite the win, Northern Iowa stumbled through the AMCU-8 season, finish in a three-way tie for third in the conference with a 6-6 record.
Northern Iowa hosted the AMCU-8 tournament for the first-time ever that year, and the school was on the hook financially for its success. With the Panthers seeded fourth in the field there was no guarantee the Panthers would even make it out of the first round.
The Northern Iowa magic that began with the win over the Hawkeyes blossomed during the post-season tournament. In the first round, the Panthers outlasted a feisty Illinois-Chicago team 99-94 in triple overtime to reach the semifinals.
The next night, Northern Iowa would face its nemesis in Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State). Southwest Missouri State was 11-1 during league play and had already beaten the Panthers by 10 points earlier in the season in Cedar Falls. This game was different. Tied in the final seconds, Northern Iowa tossed a full-court inbounds pass to center Jason Reese, who caught the ball and converted a layup at the buzzer to win 63-61.
That setup a showdown for an NCAA Tourney berth against Wisconsin-Green Bay and star guard Tony Bennett (that same guy that is now the head coach of no. 1 seed Virginia). Hobbled by a badly-swollen ankle he had suffered in the semifinals, Bennett was less than his normal stellar self, as Northern Iowa prevailed 53-45 to gain an automatic bid into the 1990 NCAA Tournament.
Northern Iowa earned a no. 14 seed and faced no. 3 seeded Missouri in the first round. This was the Missouri team of Doug Smith, Anthony Peeler and Travis Ford (who would later transfer to Kentucky). Coach Norm Stewart (a former Northern Iowa Head Coach), had his team ranked no. 1 in the country late in the season. But the Tigers had stumbled into the NCAA Tournament. A regular season finale loss to Notre Dame on national TV was followed by an overtime loss to Colorado in the first-round of the Big 8 Tournament.
Still it was a 23-5 Tigers team facing a Northern Iowa school that was getting its first taste of NCAA Tournament play. The Panthers came to play and took the game to Missouri from the opening tip. Northern Iowa controlled the game throughout, leading 42-31 at the half. But the Tigers kept clawing back and the game was tied in the final minute. Then Maurice Newby happened. The man affectionately known as Mo sent the Panthers to the second round against Minnesota. The Panthers would fall 81-78 to a Golden Gophers team that advanced all the way to the Elite Eight, but Northern Iowa’s NCAA Tournament magic was just beginning.
Northern Iowa would make the NCAA Tournament field in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2009 as a double-digit seed. Each time, the Panthers went one and done.
The 2009-10 team was different. This Panther’s team went 15-3 in the Missouri Valley Conference, winning the league title. After winning the MVC Tournament, as well, the Panthers would enter the NCAA Tournament with a 28-4 record and a no. 9 seed. It was magic time.
Facing no. 8 seed UNLV in Oklahoma City, the Panther were tied with the Rebels 66-all with less than 30 seconds to play. Scrambling for a last-second shot the Panthers found Ali Farokhmanesh for a long-three pointer and a 69-66 victory.
The victory pushed Northern Iowa into a second-round matchup against overall no. 1 seed Kansas. Despite the matchup looking so lopsided that Northern Iowa was a +700 underdog to win, the Panthers never feared the Jayhawks. Northern Iowa led 63-62 with 42 seconds left as Kansas was furiously trying to rally. That set up the shot of the 2010 NCAA Tourney
The 2014-15 Northern Iowa Panthers were arguably the greatest team assembled in school history. The Panthers opened the season 9-0 before losing in double overtime at Virginia Commonwealth (then coached by Shaka Smart. Remember him for later.). The Panthers would win 18 of their next 19 games before falling at no. 11 ranked Wichita State in the regular season finale. The Panthers were ranked as high as no. 10 the AP Poll during the regular season.
There wasn’t as much magic in the NCAA Tourney. The Panthers, thought by many to be a three-seed, instead were seeded fifth. Northern Iowa dispatched Wyoming 71-54 in the first round before falling 66-53 to a hot-shooting Louisville team two days later.
Northern Iowa’s season took a promising start as the Panthers beat Stephen F. Austin (that team that upset West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament) then beat no. 1 ranked North Carolina after coming back from a 16-point deficit. The team struggled in November and December and was just 10-11 overall on January 23. Northern Iowa finished the regular season winning nine of its final 10 games.
The Panthers beat regular-season league champion Wichita State in overtime in the MVC Tournament semifinals to face Evansville in the title game. This time it was Northern Iowa that blew a big lead, and the game was tied with 20 seconds left. That’s just enough time for Northern Iowa magic. Wes Washpun’s jumper falling through at the buzzer sent a Northern Iowa team that would not have received an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament as an automatic selection.
Northern Iowa earned an 11-seed and the Panthers were sent back to Oklahoma City. The same Oklahoma City where Northern Iowa stunned UNLV and Kansas six years earlier. That set up Friday night’s win over Texas. Now coached by Shaka Smart (remember?). The Northern Iowa magic lives on.
Northern Iowa will face Texas A&M Sunday in the NCAA Tournament Second Round.
Editor’s Note: I am a 1993 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. In 1990, I was courtside for all three games of the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament as the Sports Editor of The Northern Iowan, the school’s newspaper.