Purple Power: Cedar Valley readies for return to ‘Madness’

The infamous dagger from Ali Farokhmanesh that ripped the heart out of the almighty Goliath still resonates throughout the city of Cedar Falls. It is at the top of the list when it comes to memorable moments in the history of the University of Northern Iowa and sent shockwaves throughout the country five years ago this month when No.1 overall seeded Kansas fell at the hands of little UNI.

Fans, students and current players will always remember exactly where they watched that game, and it is that time of the year again when Farokhmanesh’s iconic shot is brought back to life on highlights of the greatest tournament moments of all time. The Panthers were able to upset the Jayhawks and reach their first Sweet 16 in school history, and the country took notice as Farokhmanesh graced the front cover of Sports Illustrated along with the words “divine madness.”

Since the Panthers magical run a half decade ago, they’ve struggled to return to that success with exits in their first game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament each of the last four years. Now with no players remaining from the 2010 team, these Panthers are out to turn some heads on their own. After trying to speed up the tempo a season ago but finishing a disappointing 16-15, head coach Ben Jacobson got back to what led his team to success in the past: slowing down the offense, making it more efficient and playing impenetrable defense.

Last season UNI ranked 187th in defensive efficiency and went to the CIT. This year they rank fourth in the entire country in points allowed per game trailing Kentucky and Virginia who are considered to play some of the best defense college basketball has seen in years and are bound for the NCAA tournament.

The defensive improvement can be credited in part to Jacobson who preaches team defense in practice daily. “Coach demands perfection,” senior forward Nate Buss said. “He expects nothing less than the best. We have great respect for him and understand what he’s accomplished having gone to the Sweet 16.”

CFHS alum George Ahrenholz gets a front row seat to watch Jacobson and the Panthers every day in practice as a team manager. Ahrenholz sees the love coach Jake has for his team goes beyond basketball. He doesn’t single out his players negatively but has the ability to use lessons as teaching points all while maintaining a sense of humor with his team. “He expects them to represent UNI and UNI athletics well,” the manager said. “He makes each position on the team feel that it is important to their success by acknowledging each person every day.  Whether it is a coach, player or manager, he never hesitates to say hello, ask how you’re doing or start a conversation.”

Despite finishing with a record of 28-4 heading into the tournament in 2010, the Panthers were given a No. 9 seed that many believe didn’t give UNI enough credit for their impressive season. This season it’s a different story. Although the term “Cinderella” has been thrown around, the country has taken notice of the incredible season Northern Iowa has put together. ESPN came to Cedar Falls on Wednesday to put together a feature for selection Sunday on UNI. The Panthers have also returned to the cover of Sports Illustrated this week as a team that is pinpointed to potentially take down undefeated No.1-ranked Kentucky.

“It’s not something you even dream of until it happens,” said Buss, who is joined by Seth Tuttle and Wes Washpun on the cover. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

The country certainly has taken notice, but Cedar Falls has been buzzing with excitement for this team all year. CFHS alum Austin Hansen is an electronic media major at UNI and films and edits highlights for UNI. He’s gotten to travel with the team and be on the inside of the action as well as a fan on the outside cheering for his favorite team. His fandom shows through as his Twitter handle is @UNIPantherFan. Hansen is also apart of the Panther Pep Crew, an organization that is dedicated to driving student attendance to athletic events as well as spreading overall Panther Pride across the UNI campus.

With the success of the team as well as the Pep Crew, the McLeod Center has seen record attendance including consistent sellouts, creating what Hansen believes to be a new culture of waiting outside for tickets and getting them in advance. “It is a really special season, and the students can feel it. I see a lot more purple and gold on campus,” Hansen said.

With the team continuing to win throughout the year, it’s hard for people around campus to ignore. “People are always going to take notice when we succeed,” said Buss, who was named the MVC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. “It’s fun to hear people say they’re really proud. It makes all of the hard work worth it.”

After taking home the MVC tournament championship in St. Louis last weekend, the Panthers automatically qualified for the NCAA tournament, although it’s safe to say they would have made it without the automatic qualifier. After being undervalued in 2010, this year’s Panthers are likely to get a No. 4 seed when the field is announced on Sunday.

“I hope they can carry us to a National Championship,” Ahrenholz said. “Their confidence is at a high level right now, and it will take a lot to stop this team from doing some damage in the NCAA Tournament.”

The Panthers will be challenged, and if they make it to the Sweet 16, likely will be matched up with a No.1 seed. That doesn’t stop Hansen from thinking UNI will be a force to be reckoned with.

“I think UNI can make it all the way to Indianapolis for the Final Four,” Hansen said. “The thing I always tell people when asked about it is, ‘Why not?’ This team has the talent to play 40 minutes with anyone in the country.”

Iowa and Iowa State will also be NCAA tournament bound, and all three have brought a buzz to the state that hasn’t been seen in some time. With 11 of UNI’s 15 players being from Iowa, UNI isn’t just playing for Cedar Falls or Panther fans, but for the entire state of Iowa.

“We have the capability to make a deep run in the tourney,” Buss said. “We have a lot of confidence that we have the talent and toughness to make a big run.”

Farokhmanesh will always be remembered by fans of UNI and will still be talked about for years to come, but the Panthers are back. This team is ready to send its own shockwaves throughout the country and once again go on a tournament run that fans of UNI and beyond, will never forget.

 

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