PORTLAND, Ore. — Here I sit on a bus at Flightcraft Aviation, waiting to be taken to the tarmac where the members of the Northern Iowa traveling party will be screened before boarding a plane (that isn’t here yet) that will take us to Waterloo tonight.
My golly, that was a long sentence.
It’s a long ride, but it was a short road for the Panthers in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Their 61-56 loss to Purdue was tantalizing enough to make them wonder what might have been. They know it was on them, and they just didn’t do enough to get it done.
Without further adieu, here’s my column on the game:
This wasn’t the cruelest way to lose an NCAA tournament game, but it’s pretty high on Northern Iowa’s cruel-o-meter.
The Panthers had three years between NCAA starts, but remained in the rut they established in 2004. The numerology of losing first-round games by five points in four straight attempts is confounding enough, but the pattern is what stings.
UNI’s 61-56 defeat to Purdue in the Rose Garden was cut from the cookie mold of 2004, 2005 and 2006 when the Panthers fell to Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Georgetown.
They were winnable games against higher seeds from BCS conferences, but UNI couldn’t outplay its foe. This time it didn’t shoot well enough, didn’t protect the ball well enough, and always seemed a split-second too late on loose balls or attainable rebounds.
“You can’t say coulda, shoulda,” said UNI sophomore point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, who proceeded to do just that.
“There were things we could have done to change the outcome of the game, obviously. Giving up offensive rebounds, not blocking out, turnovers — those things could have changed the game.”
It was a 10-minute game — the first 10. Purdue came out of the blocks playing like the team that won the Big Ten tournament four days earlier. UNI bore little resemblance to the squad that captured the Missouri Valley Conference tourney trophy the previous Sunday.
“In that first half, to Purdue’s credit, they bounced us around a little bit,” Panthers Coach Ben Jacobson said.
“They were able to take some things away from us. We mishandled the ball a few times just on the dribble and didn’t get our hands on a couple of rebounds, but that was because of the aggressiveness that Purdue played with. It took us a little while to settle in.”
What Jacobson called a little while seemed like an eternity.
Purdue peeled off a 14-0 run for a 20-8 lead, enforcing its will every step of the way. The Boilermakers got a game’s worth of open shots in those first 10 minutes and cashed in many.
UNI’s offensive possessions, meanwhile, were maddeningly mechanical and usually fruitless against the smothering Purdue defense.
“We had some jitters starting out and were a little bit hesitant,” said UNI guard Ali Farokhmanesh. “They brought the game to us and we were kind of letting them take it to us, too.”
Farokhmanesh and forward Adam Koch were the players UNI brought to the NCAA’s postgame interview room. Neither scored in the first half, and the pair had averaged a combined 21 points per game.
Both battled after that. Koch had a flying dunk in transition that let Panther spirits soar momentarily, and Farokhmanesh had 10 points to help spearhead the rally.
You can play for 30 minutes against a Cal State-Northridge. You need to play 40 against a Purdue.
The killing force throughout the game was slender 6-foot-10 Boilermaker forward JuJuan Johnson, who appeared to elude UNI man-mountain Jordan Eglseder at will until he got the jumper he wanted.
UNI Coach Ben Jacobson insisted afterward that he was happy to give Johnson the 15-footers and beyond to limit other components of Purdue’s offense, like Robbie Hummel 3-pointers.
The trouble was, Johnson kept seizing opportunities when he darted free on the perimeter while Eglseder stood helplessly, a few steps away.
Eglseder, and eventually, his teammates, sprang to life as play went on. The second half, which began with UNI down 32-20, eventually established the Panthers as the better team.
The better team in the second half, anyhow.
It was the essence of a 12-seed/5-seed game. Either the 12 seed has to play above its norm, the 5 seed must underperform, or both.
This game saw neither.
Purdue was Purdue, fundamentals not frill. It’s an amazingly solid first-round NCAA tourney program, with wins in its last 11 NCAA openers. Tom Davis-esque, you might say.
“When we needed a basket, we got a basket,” Boilermakers Coach Matt Painter said.
When they needed free throws, they made free throws. When they needed to take a charge at a critical moment, they took it.
“We were in a position at the end of the game where we could have made some plays and pulled it out and won the game,” Koch said. “We just came up short on a couple of the shots or a couple of those close plays maybe that we’ve been making a lot this year.”
Kerwin Dunham’s second 3-pointer down the stretch pulled UNI within 56-54 with 17 seconds remaining, but Purdue didn’t choke at the foul line after subsequent UNI fouls. The Boilers survived. The Panthers were airborne for Waterloo Thursday night.
(My laptop’s ‘delete’ button has stopped working at this point, so gibberish may ensue) last night.
It was a quiet ride. Four straight five-point losses to favorites in this tourney. One hurts. Two sting. Four in a row are just plain cruel.
“I’m going to have to get that fixed one of these times,” Jacobson said. “And I don’t mean getting beat by a different number.
“We’re going to win a game. I don’t have any questions about that. And I think this — this group more than anything is proof we’re going to have an opportunity to play in the tournament again. We’re going to win a game in the tournament.”
Iowa State Coach Greg McDermott, who recruited many of this season’s Panthers to Cedar Falls, flew here to be a UNI fan for a day.
With not a senior in the Panthers’ starting lineup and just one in their nine-player rotation, you think McDermott wouldn’t like to swap rosters with his longtime pal and former assistant Jacobson next winter?
Jacobson will keep what he’s got, thanks. But he said he’ll probably spend today and the weekend recruiting.
There’s a five-point hurdle to clear, you know.