The thing I’ll remember most about Northern Iowa’s victory over Texas — well, the thing I’ll remember after remembering Paul Jesperson’s halfcourt shot — was how unruffled the Panthers were when the Longhorns scored to tie the game with 2.7 seconds remaining. NIU did not take a timeout, though it had one remaining. Matt Bohannon did not rush his inbounds pass, waiting until he found Jesperson free near midcourt.
Then, when Jesperson got the ball, he took one unhurried dribble toward the center of the floor before letting fly. Even before the shot — and it was a shot, not a heave — left his hand, I thought, “That’s got a chance.” And so it did.
Two days later, those same placid Panthers authored the worst collapse in NCAA tournament annals if not the history of basketball. They led Texas A&M, which had done nothing for 39 minutes and 20 seconds, by 12 points inside the final 40 seconds. They lost in double overtime. They committed four turnovers over the final 31 seconds. (They actually made a basket amid all this.)
Twice NIU tried to throw the ball off an Aggie and wound up throwing it to an Aggie. Jesperson, Friday’s miracle man, threw the ball away and fouled on a layup. (Bohannon was on the bench with a leg injury, which exacerbated matters.) Nobody had ever seen anything like it, probably because there had never been anything like it.
Heck, a guy I know well tweeted this when the Aggies trailed by 12 (and then he switched over to Xavier-Wisconsin, only to switch back):
Then, moments later:
A team has a 99.9 percent chance to win a game and loses, two days after hitting a halfcourt shot to win and one week after hitting a bounce-off-the-brace-and-drop-through game-winner in the Missouri Valley final. If you’re seeking the poster team of the NCAA tournament for now and eternity, it’s Northern Iowa — from destiny’s darlings to gone in 40 seconds (plus two overtimes).
Credit to A&M for not quitting, though — truth to tell — for 39 minutes and 20 seconds the Aggies really hadn’t shown up. But they’re headed to Anaheim to play Oklahoma, and that’s not a bad matchup for the College Station crew. And lest we forget, the North Carolina State team that wound up beating Houston for the 1983 NCAA title trailed Pepperdine — coached by Jim Harrick — by six points with 24 seconds remaining in Round 1 and saw Dane Suttle, an 83.5 percent foul shooter, miss the front end twice.
If you’re asking, I don’t see Texas A&M winning it all. But the Aggies still have a chance, which is more than we can say for poor Northern Iowa. And the SEC still has a representative in this Dance, though only just. And me, I’ll be spending the next decade living down one slightly erroneous tweet.