How Northern Iowa’s seniors watched the Sweet 16 game they should’ve been in

Matt Bohannon, one of three Northern Iowa seniors whose college careers came to an abrupt and painful end in the Sweet 16.

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With the wound of its stunning NCAA tournament meltdown against Texas A&M still raw, the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team convened at head coach Ben Jacobson’s house last Thursday to watch the evening’s Sweet 16 games.

On his downstairs TV, the 10th-year coach put on Villanova-Miami, and on the second floor, Jacobson turned on Texas A&M and Oklahoma, in case any of his guys wanted to take part in what some might call an important step toward healing and moving on.

Needless to say, few players ventured upstairs.

"I’m just not very good at that stuff," Panthers guard Matt Bohannon told FOX Sports by phone this week. "After last year’s (NCAA tournament) loss to Louisville, I couldn’t really watch much more because I knew we had a good chance to beat them and just didn’t play very well that night. This year wasn’t as tough, but I didn’t watch any of (the A&M game).

Texas A&M’s Alex Caruso celebrates after the Aggies completed one of the most improbable comebacks of all time.

"Just with the way it ended –€” taking nothing away from A&M, because they’re a really good team, and at the end of the day they did beat us –€” I still feel like we were a better basketball team," the senior continued. "We controlled that game for 39 minutes and so many seconds. We felt like we should have been there. To know how close we were, that made it tough."

Some did tune in, however, if only in fits and starts and out of a self-abasing need to see what might have been.

"I didn’t think I’d be able to watch, to tell you the truth, but I had to," another UNI senior, Paul Jesperson, said. "I caught myself a couple times just thinking about, ‘Man, what would the matchups have been if we would have played these guys?’ or, ‘What would we have done in that situation?’ or, ‘How would we have attacked them from this angle, instead of what they’re doing?’

"A lot of that stuff was running through my mind, and I wanted to see that game because I knew that could have potentially been us," added Jesperson, whose half-court buzzer beater eliminated Texas in the first round and was one of the tournament’s best highlights. "I wanted to see how it played out for them."

It’s a difficult thing, of course, watching another team play in — and, in A&M’s case, lose — a tournament game that you feel you should have been a part of, and there are few, if any, who will argue that Northern Iowa didn’t give away a trip to the Sweet 16.

Leading the No. 3 seed Aggies by 12 points with 44 seconds left, victory was all but assured, and at that point, some opposing coaches wouldn’t bother fouling to keep the game alive. (Oregon, for example, let the clock run out on Saturday after it cut Oklahoma’s lead to 12 with 29 seconds left.)

But against 11th-seeded Northern Iowa, A&M coach Billy Kennedy’s guys kept battling, creating four turnovers in the waning seconds to force overtime and eventually secure a 92-88 win in double overtime that was unthinkable to the point that was almost literally impossible.

Afterward, the UNI seniors, Bohannon, Jesperson and guard Wes Washpun, took to the podium alongside Jacobson and spoke graciously and emotionally about the loss and the end of their careers. Then once all the tears had dried, the team returned to campus, and while the week and a half since has been tough –€” perhaps at no point more so than during that A&M game — it’s also been a time of reflection for a group of young men who are no longer so hung up on what could have, or should have been.

I’ve told a couple of my closer friends that I would like to think that I would have been able to handle it in the manner that the three seniors did when I was their age, but I’m really not quite sure I could have.

Ben Jacobson

"The thing that has really struck me, now looking back on it, is the way in which those guys handled it," Jacobson said of his trio of seniors. "It’s something that is certainly going to stick with me for as long as I’m doing this, and I’m sure long after that. And I think our community, in a lot of ways, has had that same feeling.

"I’ve told a couple of my closer friends that I would like to think that I would have been able to handle it in the manner that the three seniors did when I was their age," Jacobson added, "but I’m really not quite sure I could have."

For Bohannon, closure has meant reconciling the fact that he wasn’t on the floor to try to stop the Panthers’ collapse.

Northern Iowa’s regular inbounds passer, Bohannan left the game after injuring his knee with 1:17 left and his team up by nine, then watched the rest of regulation from the bench. The 22-year-old eventually returned with 3:51 left in the first overtime, but afterward, Bohannon couldn’t help but wonder if things would have turned out differently had he never been forced to come out.

Northern Iowa’s Klint Carlson, after the loss to Texas A&M.

"It wasn’t fun by any means," Bohannon said when asked about not being on the floor for the A&M comeback. "Certainly, as I look back on it, I obviously wish I was out there. But things like that happen in basketball, and at the time I went out it was kind of different, because I was in a lot of pain and at the same time we were up by 12 with 40-something seconds left.

"You’re obviously feeling good in the back of your mind," continued Bohannon, who said he didn’t actually witness much of the rally while he got treatment at the end of the bench. "I just kind of talked to my trainers and we kind of took the perspective of, ‘Let’s just get ready for Thursday and make sure that there’s nothing wrong with it.’ So it kind of sucked, and as soon as they were getting closer, I was kind of itching to get out, get back in there. Unfortunately, things happened and I just kind of have to deal with it."

Jesperson, meanwhile, said processing the fact that he’ll never play for the Panthers again has been at the forefront of his mind, rather than the particulars of how his final game ended.

"I’m very competitive and I think of myself as a winner," the Virginia transfer said. "So any time you lose like that, it stings and it pops up. It keeps popping up. But I’ve learned things from it and at the same time, I’ve moved on from it, and I really reflect more on the six- to eight-week stretch where we really turned this thing around."

"Their focus hasn’t been on the end of that game," added Jacobson, who said he has not and may never watch the film from the Texas A&M game. "They know it was a one-in-a-million deal. Their focus is simply on each other and our program and the fact that we were playing great and had an unbelievable two months."

Heading into its Jan. 27 game at Bradley, Northern Iowa was 10-11 overall and 2-6 in the Missouri Valley Conference, with early season wins over No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Iowa State nothing but a distant memory. There was little thought at the time that the Panthers would be in a position to have calamity take over in an NCAA tournament game, but the Panthers proceeded to win 12 of 13 games heading into the dance, including a memorable run through the conference tournament.

Now that turnaround seems to be the lasting memory for the program’s fans, with messages of support pouring in virtually from the time the UNI players stepped off the court in Oklahoma City.

"I thought it was going to be a lot more negative than it was," Jesperson said of the reaction since returning to Iowa. "But it was all positive, honestly, and there were a lot of people just saying how proud they were of us, and I think a lot of that was because of how we handled it. If we wouldn’t have gone up there and done that press conference with coach, if we would have tried to hide from it and not shown our face in class the next day on campus, I think it could have been a lot worse. But we handled it like men, and I think that helped a lot and showed a lot about our character."

There’s also comfort for the outgoing seniors in knowing that they’re leaving the Northern Iowa program in better shape than it was when they arrived.

… We handled it like men and I think that helped a lot and showed a lot about our character.

Paul Jesperson

"That’s what college basketball is all about," said Bohannon, who earlier this week penned a farewell letter to the UNI community for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. "If you’d talked to me four or five years ago when I first stepped on campus, I would have told you I just wanted to make an impact and I just wanted to make a name for myself and have people remember who I am and what I did here.

"Now when people look back, they’re going to remember No. 4 or No. 11 or No. 5 jerseys," Bohannon continued, "and they’re going to think of Paul, myself and Wes as a group of guys that didn’t want to quit and would do anything it takes to win and raised the bar that much more for a program that was already moving in a pretty good direction."

And that, if nothing else, is reason to be proud –€” even in the wake of a heartbreaking, unforgettable loss.

"There isn’t any question that they have already crossed that bridge, and I can’t even tell you how impressive (that is) and how proud I am that they are able to, with what happened at the end of that game, look at the bigger picture," Jacobson said. "Our program is so much bigger than this. What we did this year, the last two months, was as much fun as we could have possibly had. We learned a lot about ourselves, we learned a lot about each other, we raised the bar for our program, and that’s why we came to Northern Iowa, to continue to raise the bar. And we did that. We did our part, and this isn’t going to stop us.

"Yeah, when this thing pops up in their mind once or twice a year as they go through the rest of their lives, sure it’s still going to hurt," Jacobson added. "But it isn’t going to define them at all, in any way, shape or form."

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