Ali lands knockout blow of Jayhawks
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The kid does not emote.
Ali Farokhmanesh plays basketball with the stoicism of a palace guard. No smiles, no woofs, no frowns. Even while fracturing defenses with his jump shot, his on-court expression never varies.
So you knew this was a seminal moment -- One Shining Moment, if you will -- when the Northern Iowa guard clenched two fists in front of his chest, bent back and howled at the heavens. For just a minute, Ali looked like that other Ali, snarling over Sonny Liston with a cocked fist after knocking him down in Maine in 1965.
There was no prone body at Farokhmanesh's feet, at least not literally. But that's where he laid out the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks Saturday, 69-67, imploding a million brackets but gaining a million admirers with his haymaker/heartbreaker that shook the nation.
Not long before that outburst, the lightly recruited son of an Iranian immigrant volleyball coach had taken one of the all-time no-no-YES! jump shots in NCAA tournament history. With 35 seconds left and the Panthers wobbling badly against the desperate Jayhawks, in danger of losing a game they had controlled from the opening minutes, Farokhmanesh pulled up on a two-on-one fast break
Northern Iowa led by a single point at that moment, after being up a dozen with just more than 12 minutes to play and up seven with 70 seconds left. And Farokhmanesh hadn't made a blessed thing the entire second half. He had missed seven straight shots after hitting all four in the first half.
Conventional wisdom says a cold shooter trying to protect a fragile lead does one of two things in that situation: drive and dish to teammate Johnny Moran on the opposite side of the court, or run some clock with the dribble. Instead, with the swagger of that other Ali, Farokhmanesh chose Option C. He rose to shoot from 21 feet out.
Teammate Adam Koch, your reaction?
"Honestly? It was 'Oh God,' " Koch admitted. "I wasn't sure. But if anybody's going to shoot it, Ali's going to do it. And Ali's probably going to make it."
It was that unbreakable confidence that Farokhmanesh carried into a shot that had to scare the daylights out of every Northern Iowa fan. When Kansas defender Tyrel Reed backed away from him into the paint -- "I really didn't think he was going to shoot it," Reed said -- it was time to ignore the enormity of the situation and let if fly.
"Might as well shoot it," Farokhmanesh said of his thought process. "I thought that was the best shot we were going to get. In the last seconds of a game with the chance to beat the No. 1 team in the country, you'd better take it."
This is what the senior from Iowa City does: He makes big shots. And this is why he has become the face of this endlessly suspenseful and surprising NCAA tournament.
Honestly? It was, 'Oh God.' I wasn't sure. But if anybody's going to shoot it, Ali's going to do it. And Ali's probably going to make it.” -- Northern Iowa's Adam Koch
Thursday night in the first round, he jumped up and drained a 25-footer with five seconds left to beat UNLV, 69-66. This time around, the final score was almost the same but the final result was much more stunning.
Almost nobody foresaw another Kansas collapse in the early rounds. It's a good thing Bill Self won that 2008 national title, because on the other side of the ledger are now three ghastly NCAA upsets: to No. 14 seed Bucknell in 2005, to No. 13 Bradley in 2006 and now this, to the No. 9 Panthers.
The Bucknell upset was in this town. So was the last time Kansas lost in the second round as a No. 1 seed, in 1998, to Rhode Island. When the Jayhawks come to Oklahoma City, it's never pretty.
"We worked so hard for this all year, and to have a team that is not better than us come out and beat us, it's tough," said Kansas forward Marcus Morris.
Northern Iowa is free to dispute that assertion. On this day the Panthers were the better team, and on a day when Kansas missed 17 of 23 3-pointers, UNI definitely had the best shooter on the floor.
With that knockout 3 and two cold-blooded free throws to clinch the deal with five seconds left, Farokhmanesh dismissed the tourney favorite and sent title hopes soaring from Lexington, Ky., to Syracuse, N.Y., to Durham, N.C.
And, in this parity-permeated season, beyond just those locales. What the heck, why not Cedar Falls, Iowa?
If the Northern Iowa Panthers can lead almighty Kansas for 39 minutes and 4 seconds, at times threatening to blow the Jayhawks out, who can't they beat if they play their best?
"Probably people thought the ceiling was the second round for us, because of this game," Farokhmanesh said. "We're going to see if we can keep it going in St. Louis."
That city that will host the Midwest Regional semifinals and final has been very good to the Panthers. They've won six consecutive Missouri Valley Conference tournament games there over the past two years, and it's where I fell in love with this team two weeks ago watching it throttle Wichita State for the automatic NCAA tournament bid.
The Northern Iowa team I saw that day is the Northern Iowa team everyone saw Saturday: confident, intelligent, resilient, unbreakable defensively, unshakable offensively, expertly coached by Ben Jacobson and exceedingly deep. The Panthers are the epitome of team success.
In fact, this was such a complete team victory that it would be irresponsible not to name all 10 players Jacobson uses, with complete faith.
Start with Jordan Eglseder, the 7-foot mountain in the middle. He set the giant-killing tone early by shooting three 3-pointers in the first 12½ minutes, making two of them. He had made just one all season before this game.
"I definitely surprised myself," Eglseder said with a laugh. "Especially after I missed that first one, I can't even believe I took the next one."
And there are the Koch brothers, Adam and freshman Jake. Adam is the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year and had just eight points against the Jayhawks -- but his dunk of a missed shot with less than 90 seconds left was huge. Jake came off the bench to shoot 1-for-7 from the field, but he made 7 of 8 free throws and took two crucial charges -- the last of them with 23 seconds left.
"Those two charges were huge for our team," Adam Koch said of his brother. "They're both layups for Kansas."
Don't forget fifth starter Moran, who made a big 3 early and a bigger one late. Kerwin Dunham, averaging 3.6 points per game, had the brass to drive hard to the basket on one key possession and came up with 3 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals. Guard Marc Sonnen got off the floor several times to tip rebounds away from Kansas and had three steals. The gloriously named Lucas O'Rear, owner of shaggy sideburns and a sloppy body and a couple of serious tattoos, shrugged off a 5-inch height disadvantage to Cole Aldrich and grappled his way to 3 points, 5 boards and 2 steals. Even Anthony James, in just two minutes of playing time, forced a Kansas turnover.
"I think today was another example in the first half where our bench guys came in and expanded the lead for us," Adam Koch said. "Against the No. 1 team in the country, you've got the depth to do that, that's a huge advantage for us."
And, at winning time, they had the best advantage of all: Ali Farokhmanesh.
His parents, Mashallah Farokhmanesh and Cindy Fredrick, quit their volleyball coaching jobs two years ago to follow their only child's basketball career. They traveled the Midwest in their Honda CR-V, driving 16 hours round-trip at times -- with no hotel stay -- to games as distant as Evansville, Ind., and Carbondale, Ill., and Wichita, Kan.
When Mashallah came to this country in 1978 to learn English, he didn't know that he'd end up earning a master's and a Ph.D. and staying for the rest of his life. And he didn't know much about basketball. But both parents did their best to coach Ali, taping a broom to a yardstick and holding it up to help him learn how to arch his shot over taller players.
When Ali used that shooting form to swish the clinching free throws with five seconds left, Fredrick stuck a fist in the air. Mashallah thrust up two. Sitting in the second row at the Ford Center Saturday night, they saw their journey of support for their son extended a few more days at least.
And they saw Ali land the knockout blow that made him the household name-and-a-half of March Madness.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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