Say what you want about Ohio taking out Georgetown in the first round, but for my money, Northern Iowa shocking Kansas on Saturday night in Oklahoma City — particularly Ali Farokhmanesh‘s huge 3-pointer to ice it at the end — was the most surprising result of the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend.
Obviously, Kansas was a popular pick to cut down the nets, and as such, a Jayhawks loss in the second round caught plenty of college hoops fans and pundits off guard.
Obviously, a lot has to do with the disparity in tradition and historical significance: Kansas has Phog Allen, Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning, three NCAA Tournament titles, 13 Final Fours, the most winning seasons ever and the second-most Div. I college hoops wins.
Northern Iowa has … well, Saturday night.
But it wasn’t just that the now 30-4 Panthers took down the tourney’s top seed, making Kansas the first No. 1 seed not to make the Sweet 16 since Kentucky and Stanford both lost in the second round back in 2004. It was the way they did it, with their inconspicuous 6-foot guard doing the lion’s share of the damage.
It was a tight game throughout, but when Northern Iowa got the ball back leading by one with 30-some seconds remaining on the game clock, things looked good for the Panthers. All they had to do was break Kansas’ press, hold on to the ball and hit some free throws. They quickly got the ball across mid-court and into the hands of Farokhmanesh on the right wing.
He had a teammate on the opposite wing and there was just one Jayhawks defender back, guard Tyrel Reed. Reed hedged toward Farokhmanesh, but then backed off.
“He just spotted up at 3-point line,” Reed said after the game. “I was kind of protecting the hole for a second. I really didn’t think he was going to shoot it. I thought he was going to try to run some time off the clock.”
Farokhmanesh considered passing to his teammate, but when he saw Reed back off, he changed his mind. With just a seven-second differential between the shot clock and game clock, the 21-year-old guard had every opportunity to simply hold the ball and run down the clock. But no, instead of waiting for his other teammates to rush down the court to join him or waiting for the Kansas intentional foul to come, he sized up a long 3-pointer.
No, he wouldn’t. Would he?
He would. And he did.
Nothing but net. Northern Iowa goes up four and goes on to beat the top team in the land 69-67. Farokhmanesh, the son of an Iranian Olympic volleyball player, the kid who struggled at two junior colleges before finding a spot with the Panthers, ended up with a game-high 16 points in the huge upset.
Farokhmanesh’s shot was the epitome of cojones or, as the irrepressibly joyful Bill Raftery would say, onions. It was the kind of shot at which coaches cringe while it’s in the air: one of those, “No, no, no, no! Yes!” shots. It was the kind of rare moment where self confidence wins out over sensibility, conventional wisdom and conservative play.
But in Farokhmanesh’s mind, it was simple.
“Sometimes I probably think about my shot too much,” he said afterward. “If someone leaves me a little too open, then sometimes you second-guess yourself, talk to yourself a little about the shot. I think in those situations you almost know you have to shoot it, so that’s probably why it makes it a little easier.”
Another way of looking at it? Farokhmanesh basically said to Kansas, “Eh, no thanks. I’d rather not kill you slowly. I’ll take the dagger and plunge it directly into your heart. You can take your comeback hopes and stuff ’em straight down your throat. It ain’t happening.”
When asked if he thought Farokhmanesh should have taken the shot, teammate Jake Koch was diplomatic in his response.
“If anybody’s going to shoot that shot, I want it to be Ali,” Koch said.
“Because he’s prepared, he’s got all the confidence in the world,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said Sunday. “He knows that his teammates have complete trust in him and that he’s going to come through for us when we need him to.”
And he did.
Years from now — as my wife pointed out after we screamed in unison at Farokhmanesh’s huge 3 — someone will hit a similarly dagger-ific shot, and some wizened old hoops announcer will scream, “Wow, that was a simply Farokhmaneshian performance!”
Even Kansas coach Bill Self was impressed.
“The last shot he made, [with a] seven-second differential, you’re going to shoot the ball with 30 on the shot clock like that? He even hesitated before he shot it. Give him credit. That was a dagger, and it was a big-time play by a really good player. … The guy has got guts because he’s 0-for-6 the second half from 3. Seven second differential and he goes for it. Give him credit. That was a heck of a shot.”
Perhaps it was the simple improbability and implausibility of the upset of Kansas coupled with the big shot that made it so amazing: the gradual progression from “I can’t believe this is gonna happen” to “C’mon, there’s still no way this is gonna happen” to “Oh my gosh, could it really happen?” to “Holy cow, it could seriously happen!” to “Oh my goodness, it’s gonna happen!” to “I still can’t believe it happened!”
Sure, it’s tough to lose your national championship pick — and have your bracket completely shattered — in the second round. Still, it’s those rare glimpses of confidence and greatness, those Farokhmaneshian moments, that make the NCAA Tournament one of sports’ most inherently exciting events.
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