‘Fed up’ with hearing about 2010, ’15 UNI Panthers want to carve own legacy

Ben Jacobson last coached the Panthers to a 30-win season and a conference championship in -- you guessed it -- 2010.

Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — Bennett Koch’s first One Shining Moment smelled a lot like barf tartare, so you’ll forgive the Northern Iowa forward if his memories of Oklahoma City 2010 are rather … mixed.

Short version: The evening before Ali Farokhmanesh’s stones were elevated to March Madness’ Mount Olympus and bronzed, Koch, the younger brother of then-Panthers forwards Adam and Jake, was dining out at a steakhouse with his family.

"We were all nervous for the big game (against No. 1 seed Kansas)," the younger Koch recalled Sunday, a piece of Scottrade Center net wedged in between his forehead and the celebratory cap on his head. "One of us came down with the flu to (the point) to where they were puking all night.

"So we’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is a bad omen.’"

Then Ali went up with the 3-ball, and KU went down in flames.

"I only remember the Ali shot, how loud it was," Bennett continued. "I thought to myself, ‘Hey, this could be me. This could be my future.’"

He grinned.

"Now here we are."

There he was: A redshirt freshman on the 2015 Missouri Valley Conference tournament champions, No. 12 in the country, 69-60 Sunday winners over scrappy Illinois State; the first UNI team to conquer Arch Madness since 2010; the first Panther squad to win 30 games in a season since … 2010.

Ah, yes. The magic of 2010. The splendor of 2010. The unicorns and rainbows of 2010.

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Frankly, Bennett Koch is a little tired of hearing about 2010.

"At the beginning of the season, we were always reminded of the 2010 team, how good they were," said the UNI forward, who went into Sunday averaging 1.5 points and 4.3 minutes per contest. "And I think we got fed up with it."

Ali this, Ali that. For five years, that was the bar for Panthers basketball, the Sweet 16 crew that left UNLV and Kansas in tatters and pushed Michigan State to the brink.

The bar and the burden.

"Yeah, sometimes," said forward Nate Buss, who had averaged 19 points a game off the bench over his last two contests. "Like I said, it’s nice to have something for ourselves. Show the country that this basketball program isn’t just a one-year kind of deal. We’re a successful program, and we definitely showed that (Sunday)."

"We wanted," Koch added, "our own story."


Now they have one. Sunday’s outcome wasn’t unexpected, though the tilt took about 16 hairpin turns in order to get there. UNI notched almost half as many field goals in the first 2:20 of the second half (three) as it did in the entire 20 minutes of the first (seven makes). A desperate, hot-shooting Illinois State team led by 14 at the half, but UNI guard Jeremy Morgan’s trey from the left elbow cut the Redbirds’ edge to 37-29 with 17:40 to go in the contest.

Illinois State coach Dan Muller mixed it up with a 2-1-2 zone look, and UNI worked the offense into the gaps along the wings. Matt Bohannon sank a trey from the right elbow to bring the purple to within 37-34; Morgan dropped another trey with 13:49 left in the game to cut the margin to 40-39.

In the first 7½ minutes of the second half, Morgan, a sophomore from Coralville, Iowa, notched three treys and two steals as the Panthers strung together a narrative-changing 22-4 run. His third triple put the Panthers up 44-40 with 12:49 left.

"They had some momentum in the first half," Morgan said, "but we stuck with what we knew best, and came out in the second half and did a great job."

Especially on the defensive end. The Redbirds were nine for 27 from the floor over the final 20 minutes; off-guard Daishon Knight, one of the hottest hands in St. Louis the entire weekend, had poured in 16 points during the second half of Saturday’s upset of Wichita State in the semis. He had just five in the final 20 minutes against the Panthers.

The MVC’s automatic bid was the only way into the Dance for the 21-12 Redbirds; alas, Scottrade Center’s perpetual bridesmaid was left with more back-patting and, most likely, a spot in the National Invitation Tournament, again, having now reached the MVC final four times since 2007 and coming away oh for four.

"It’s tough," Knight said of the ‘Birds, who, despite multiple postseason berths over the past two decades, haven’t played in an NCAA tourney since 1998. "(You’re) 20 minutes away from the NCAA Tournament. I think nobody likes to lose in that situation."

At the outset, the Redbirds, arguably the Valley’s most athletic roster, forced UNI, one of the league’s most deliberate, to rush. The Panthers misfired on 11 of their first 14 shots and 17 of their first 21. At one point, the favorites whiffed on 14 straight attempts.

The Panthers (30-3) were destined for Bracketville no matter how Sunday shook out, but instead of rolling over and taking the foot off the gas, coach Ben Jacobson turned up the heat: UNI was six for 13 beyond the arc in the second half; star forward Seth Tuttle scored 10 of his 15 points and grabbed five of nine boards after halftime.

The Valley’s three-bid dream is gone, but dreams of a Bracketville 4 seed in the 319 area code might not be far-fetched: UNI boasts three victories over schools in the Ratings Percentage Index top 50, and two are biggies, having crushed Iowa (KenPom.com rank as of early Sunday night: 19th) at a neutral site and Wichita State (KenPom.com: 13) at home. Bonus: The Panthers are 15-3 away from Cedar Falls, and 6-0 on neutral floors.

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"I know this team is going to fight; I know this team is never going to quit," Tuttle said of the Big Dance to come. "I know this team has more weapons all over the place. I think we have everything it takes to make a run."

Maybe even a historic one. Among the notables milling outside the UNI locker room over the weekend was former Panthers point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2010 MVC tourney and one of the cornerstones of the aforementioned Sweet 16 crew from 2010.

At one point, a scribe posed Ahelegbe this question: If they ever met on a cold, icy playground court somewhere, which UNI team would win, the Panthers of then? Or the Panthers of now?

"I’m going to coin a phrase from (ex-UNI guard and now graduate manager) Johnny Moran," Ahelegbe said, beaming. "We would win on a late, last-second Ali Farokhmanesh 3. It’s always going to end that way, right?"

Another tournament, another trophy, another chapter. And nobody knows when, or where, the last word of this story — Bennett Koch’s story, Nate Buss’ story — will be written.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @SeanKeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.