My Opportunity

Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story.The Players’ Tribune presents, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Ali Farokhmanesh remembers Northern Iowa’s unlikely run to the Sweet 16.

I remember in the middle of my senior year at Northern Iowa, a bunch of the students in my finance class were discussing a game we were set to play that night against Southern Illinois. It was going to be broadcast on ESPN, which is a big deal when you go to a smaller school. At some point, one of the students turned to me and asked if I’d be going to the game that night. He clearly had no idea that I’d not only be there, I’d be starting.

Even though we had a good regular season, you couldn’t really say we were the big men on campus.

My junior year, we weren’t predicted to do much, but ended up making it to the NCAA tournament. As a result, the following season, we no longer snuck up on people — in fact, most teams marked us down on their calendars. Regardless, we ended up having a pretty dominant regular season, finishing 28-4 and even beating a few teams that would eventually be in the NCAA tournament. We punched our ticket to the dance emphatically by beating every team we played in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament by at least 15 points.

During March, it’s easy for some people to dismiss the chances of smaller schools because they haven’t watched them play. But oftentimes they forget that those teams have been playing well all season long with little margin for error, and the ones that make the tournament are usually stacked with upperclassmen. Not to mention the fact that they’ve already experienced the pressure of a single-elimination tournament — mid-majors hardly get the benefit of the doubt for at-large bids.

In March, a lot of people — and sometimes even the tournament committee — just pick teams based on the name of the front of the jersey. The national media gives some of these Power 5 schools more attention simply based on their conference affiliation, so it’s natural to pick these “name” schools in the tournament, which usually ends up being a big mistake.

We were ranked in the Top 25 in the coaches’ poll going into the 2010 NCAA Tournament, so it wasn’t like we came out of nowhere, but we still weren’t very well known on the national scene.

When the bracket was released, we weren’t happy. We should have been slated for a 4 or 5 seed but were given a 9 seed instead. It was pretty crushing because we were expecting to make a pretty big run in the tournament, but now we had Kansas, the No. 1 team in the country, looming in the second round. It was a little deflating to know our reward for a great season was an early matchup with the odds-on favorite to win the national title.

And even then, just to get to that game, we’d have to beat a really solid UNLV team. It wasn’t a great scenario, but Coach Jacobson told us to look at it as an opportunity. We thought that we had a special team — this was our opportunity to prove it.

The UNLV game was very back-and-forth. It was a tough matchup for us because they were a very different style of team than we were. They tried to push the pace of the game with their superior athleticism. Our style was more grind it out and look for the open shot. They jumped on us early, but we made a run to end the half and ended up controlling the game for most of the second half.

In crunch time, I got caught in a bad position on defense and gave up an open three to Oscar Bellfield to tie it up with 37 seconds left in the game.

Coach decided to let us play out the last shot on the other end of the court, and UNLV started trapping us. We moved it a couple of times and then got it to John Moran, who took two dribbles and then saw me across the court. He delivered a great pass and I stepped in from about 24 or 25 feet out and knocked down the eventual game-winner with 4.9 seconds left.

I figured that play would be the highlight of the tournament for me that year, it was the kind of shot you daydream about while shooting around in your driveway as a kid. But there wasn’t much time to celebrate because we had Kansas waiting for us.

We had a lot of positive momentum going into that game, and truthfully, we believed we could win it. We had put in the preparation up until then to play with anyone. The real work happens when no fans are watching — those offseason workouts and intense practices that mold a team. If you feel good about your preparation, you can feel confident in your performance. Kansas had won a bunch of basketball games that year, but we had won quite a few games too.

We didn’t require any fiery pre-game speech to get psyched up before taking the court, we were ready for this challenge. In a lot of ways, we had been working towards it for two years.

We came out of the gate pretty hot. A lot of guys were making plays for us early. Jordan Eglseder, our big seven-footer, made two three-pointers even though I think he’d only made one all season. We knew he had a great touch, but he just wasn’t put in a position to take those shots in our offense. But Kansas left him open and he took advantage.

We controlled the first half and I think I made my first five shots of the game. After that UNLV game, I was shooting the ball with a lot of confidence.

In the second half, we made some really bad plays down the stretch and struggled against their press, turning the ball over multiple times. I remember watching the game on TV later on and they showed a shot of our fans, including my mom, looking incredibly stressed out. But on the court, we felt pretty calm, and that was because of Coach Jacobson as much as anything else. Now that I’m involved in coaching, I really appreciate his ability to pass on his demeanor to us in those high-pressure situations. That was crucial to our success as a team.

Kansas cut the deficit to one with 42 seconds left and we had to inbound the ball. Jake Koch passed it in to his brother, Adam, on the left side and then he swung it back to Jake. He then threw it up to Kwadzo Ahelegbe on a bounce pass, even though you never throw a bounce pass against a press. Tyshawn Taylor came really, really close to getting the steal, but he missed it. Kwadzo saw that I was ahead of him on the right side and threw it up ahead to me on the wing. Kansas’s Tyrel Reed was stuck in a 2-on-1 situation with me and Johnny Moran on the opposite wing. He came at me initially and then kind of stepped back.

So now I was looking at a wide-open three-pointer in a situation where textbook wisdom might dictate that you slow the play down. But if I had done things the traditional way up until that point, there’s no chance I would be in that position — I probably wouldn’t even be playing Division I basketball. I’ve never really followed the textbook way of doing things.

This was a shot I had taken at least 10,000 times in my life. Coach had hammered in us this idea of taking advantage of opportunities. I knew this shot was an opportunity that I wanted to take, because if it went in the game would essentially be over. So I went for it.

The shot itself isn’t as vivid to me as the memories I have of celebrating with my teammates after the fact. Those guys are still my best friends to this day, and what we accomplished together was really something special.

Now Northern Iowa is no longer an unknown amongst most college basketball fans, and I like to think our 2010 team played a big part in that.

The following Monday after we beat Kansas, I was back in that same finance class, dead tired. I hadn’t slept at all since the previous day for obvious reasons. In the middle of class, our director of operations texted to tell me that I was going to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And then as the news spread and my phone just started blowing up. It was… a little difficult to pay attention in class that day.

As the team walked around campus, students and faculty were congratulating us and giving us high-fives. They knew who we were now.

Ali Farokhmanesh is now a graduate assistant coach at The University of Nebraska. For more Tales of Madness, visit our  Tales of Madness page.