OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was after a late December win over Belmont that Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend took senior point guard Sherron Collins aside for a little talk. Sure, the Jayhawks had blown out the Bruins 81-51 in the end, but the Jayhawks had been sloppy and sluggish in the first half. "Sherron, what's wrong with the team?" asked Townsend. 'Coach,' said Collins, 'We always feel we can go on a 20-4 run, at any time.'
"That's the kind of thinking that can you in trouble," Townsend warned him. "One time, you're going to try to go on that run and you're not going to do it. Something bad is going to happen."
That "something bad" was the 9th-seeded Northern Iowa Panthers, who led the top-seeded Jayhawks for all but the first 56 seconds of the game -- reaching a 12-point margin with 12:31 to go in the second half -- before the Jayhawks finally put a run together. Kansas closed to within one with 44 seconds to go, but a game-clinching three-pointer by UNI's fearless senior guard, Ali Farokhmanesh, the hero of the Panthers' win over UNLV on Thursday, stretched the lead to four, and Kansas ran out of time before losing 69-67. "We started out sluggish again," said freshman Xavier Henry in the funereal Kansas locker room afterward. "We had to rely on that second-half run again. We came close, but we just didn't get there."
That's a problem the Jayhawks will have the rest of March and beyond to ponder. Meanwhile, in the UNI locker room down the hall, the team that will be taking KU's designated spot in the Sweet 16 in St. Louis, was basking in a well-deserved victory. UNI, which had never faced a No. 1-ranked team and was only two days removed from its second-ever NCAA win, played with stunning composure and hustle. Perhaps Kansas knew it was in trouble when 7-footer Jordan Eglseder, who had made one three-pointer all season, made two in the first half. But it was the Panthers' refusal to wilt like a good 9-seed -- or perhaps, their refusal to recognize the enormity of what they were about to do -- that may have killed Kansas.
The Panthers' poise comes straight from their coach, Ben Jacobson, who maintains a zen-like calm that rubs off on his players. He rarely gets mad or yells at players for ill-considered shots, which is one reason Farokhmanesh only hesitated a moment before launching his lethal three with 35 seconds left. "Coach Jake probably should have screamed at us in the last minute; we turned the ball over so many times and in so many different ways, but that's just how Coach Jake is, he is so even-keeled on everything," said Farokhmanesh after the game. "He instills the confidence in us to take shots like that. Players don't want to worry about a coach yelling at them if they miss it."
When it was over, the Panthers didn't dog-pile after the game, as so many giant-killers do. There was hugging and jumping, and Eglseder popping his 53 jersey in front of the delirious UNI fans. But when the players returned to their locker room, they settled into their seats and composed their faces into pictures of serenity, to reflect Jacobson's usual countenance. "When he walked in and we were looking all calm, he got this look on his face, like, whaaat?" says junior forward Lucas O'Rear. "He went to give somebody a high-five, and we just lost it. We all went over and started laughing and jumping and hugging him."
Freshman forward Jake Koch, who is one of several movie buffs on the team, was asked to come up with the title of the movie the Panthers were currently starring in. "All the good titles have been taken," he said, passing on the opportunity to borrow Cinderella. "Let's make up a new one: How about instead of Coach Carter, we call it Coach Jacobson? As far as I'm concerned, that fits perfectly."