- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- A double-overtime game can seem like an eternity. Momentum shifts like the tides, fortunes rise and fall, national rankings dissipate into dust. And over the course of the 2½ hour thriller between No. 24 Bucknell and Northern Iowa, the snow on the UNI-Dome's transparent roof melted into a cascading waterfall, the painted-on jerseys in the student section cracked and peeled away.
And by the time that the home team had emerged with a hard-fought 65-61 win in 50 minutes of clock time, new Panther heroes had emerged on the national BracketBusters stage.
Devoted hoops junkies may already be aware of Northern Iowa's Wooden-candidate star Ben Jacobson; he's the 6-foot-3 senior leader whose court-smarts and passion fit him halfway between John Stockton and Larry Bird. On this day, he collected his 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting, including a chilly 2-of-7 from behind the arc that nearly matched the minus-10 degree morning temperatures in Cedar Falls.
But Jacobson didn't need to have the game of his life. Under the glare of the national spotlight, the UNI's supporting cast stepped up in a big way. Northern Iowa showed why its smart, gutsy and deep team will be a force to be reckoned with in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, and even beyond.
The visiting, orange-clad Bucknell squad was cheered on by a small yet boisterous traveling band of orange-clad fans (as well a small group of cheerleaders, uncomfortably wedged between a line of photographers and the "Mac's Maniacs" section). The Bison used a 16-2 run that stretched over the halftime break to build a commanding 31-22 lead with 17:20 left in the second half.
But that's when a little-used freshman guard named Travis Brown suddenly got hot. He'd averaged only 3.7 points a game going into Saturday, but he knocked down a series of three quick triples, the last of which drew Northern Iowa to within one point with 7:30 to play. From 16:50 remaining until the Eric Coleman putback that forced overtime, UNI did not score a single two-point field goal -- Bucknell's size advantage had sealed off the undersized Panthers' inside game, and the home team had to make every outside shot count.
"[Brown] resurrected us," UNI head coach Greg McDermott said. "The game was over. Travis gave us life, there's no question."
It was a loosely officiated game, with only nine combined fouls in the first half and 11 in the second; late in the first overtime, the lack of carried-over fouls became a factor. Bucknell was up 56-54 with the ball under their own basket, and UNI only had three team fouls. Northern Iowa only hoped to commit enough fouls in 3.6 seconds to send Bucknell to the line and get the ball back. One inbound, the fourth team foul; on the next, the fifth. Already, an entire second had drained from the clock.
But in a rare fundamental mistake, Bucknell's Donald Brown lofted the next inbound pass over everyone's head, throwing it the length of the floor. UNI's Brooks McKowen, a former Iowa "Mr. Basketball" from his high school days, was alone in the frontcourt in a defensive posture; he alertly raised his hands over his head and let the ball bounce out of bounds for a UNI possession.
"There were 8,442 people in here tonight," McDermott said. "And there may have only been one who would not have grabbed that ball. And that was Brooks McKowen. In that situation, for the ball to come loose, and for him to let it go talk about a feel for the game. He may have only scored one point today, but do not overlook how important and how heady that play was. It helped us win the ballgame."
And then there was Coleman, the team's high scorer with 15 and the game's final hero. The ample-framed Minnesotan sophomore with the tree-trunk arms stands 6-6 and 230 pounds, but Northern Iowa straight-facedly lists him as a center. After Brown's miscue and McKowen's heads-up play, Coleman drove for the layup that put an end to the first extra session tied at 56.
Then, during the game's final act, he converted the Panthers' final three field goals of the evening: Virtually identical up-and-under swoops to finish off the plucky Bison. And he had to get by burly Bucknellian Chris McNaughton, a man four inches taller than he, to do it.
"I was always told in high school that I wasn't big enough to play against the taller guys," a beaming Crawford said after the game. "UNI gave me a chance to show what I can do. I use my speed and quickness as an advantage. Shooting over people is a lot harder than going around them."
And that's who the Panthers are: A team that'll go around you instead of over you. Released from the tension of a game that nearly matched the running time of "Braveheart," the ecstatic student section stormed the court after the final buzzer. They not only mobbed their longtime fan favorite Jacobson, but celebrated around players like Travis Brown, Brooks McKowen and Eric Coleman, their unexpected heroes for unexpected reasons.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.