Northern Iowa Wins MVC Bid in Thrilling Fashion
ST. LOUIS – Paraphrasing the old NCAA Tournament mantra, Northern Iowa simply knows how to survive and advance.
“I think a major factor for us have been the experience this team has in close game all season,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said.
The Panthers survived three games in three days of Arch Madness, including a torrid Osiris Eldridge second-half comeback attempt and two separate four-minute scoring droughts in the final to take home the Missouri Valley Conference automatic bid and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
“They have done a great job of handling all situations,” Jacobson said. “They just have a way about them.”
Northern Iowa guards Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Ali Farokhmanesh both calmly sank a pair of game-winning free throws in overtime to give the Panthers a 61-57 victory in the MVC Tournament final.
“If you’re a basketball player, you want to be in that situation with 6.8 seconds left,” Farokhmanesh said. Farokmanesh, a junior-college transfer from nearby Iowa City, had
eight points in final four minutes of overtime to give his team a much-needed offensive push late.
“What I saw in overtime is what I expected from him,” Jacobson said when asked what he saw from the 6-foot guard when he recruited him. The only other time the MVC final went past regulation was five years ago to the day when UNI defeated Missouri State in double overtime.
“It was a big win for our program,” UNI forward Adam Koch said. “We’re just so lucky that we pulled it off the way we did.”
Ahelegbe led the Panthers in scoring with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting in 38 minutes of play.
“In the end Kwadzo, Ali, Lucas (O’Rear), everybody was stepping up and making plays tonight,” Koch said. Bracketography.com currently has UNI as a 13-seed in our latest
projection, and Jacobson jokingly said he’d much rather have the much-needed automatic bid then to sweat out an at-large consideration like he did in 2006.
“I’d rather do it this way,” Jacobson said. “We know we’ll have a Selection Show party next week.”
Illinois State guard Osiris Eldridge led a second-half charge that had the entire Scottrade Center on its feet after the junior from Chicago scored seven of ISU’s first 11 points of the half. Eldrdidge, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, had 16 points in just over 10 minutes and was 5-of-7 from beyond the three-point line in the first 15 minutes of the final half.
“I just had confidence and once I got into that zone I felt everything I shot was going to fall,” Eldridge said.
Illinois State took a 43-40 lead with 7:58 left in the second half after Eldridge hit a three-pointer in the corner with UNI senior guard Travis Brown draped all over him to complete a 20-11 Redbirds’ run.
“He took the whole game to another level that I’ve never seen before,” ISU head coach Tim Jankovich said. “He decided to will his team to a championship and darn near got that done.”
Eldridge ended the night with a game-high 21 points and could’ve sent the game to a second overtime but his three-point attempt from 30 feet bounced off the back rim.
“He’s going to play in the NBA one day no doubt about it,” Jacobson said. “The last one was a 30-footer over (6-foot-8 forward) Adam Koch so what can you do?”
After starting the season 6-6 and having only one win against an RPI Top 50 team coming into Sunday contest, every member of the UNI squad was very aware they needed this victory to punch their ticket into the big dance in less than two weeks.
“Nobody expected us to be here and now it just feels good to have that MVC Championship under my belt,” Ahelegbe said.