CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) Seniors Matt Bohannon, Paul Jesperson and Wes Washpun were stuck on a bus, heads hung low, after yet another game that Northern Iowa let slip away.
The Panthers were 10-11 and 2-6 in Missouri Valley play after losing at Illinois State, looking nothing like the team that had already beaten North Carolina and Iowa State. The NCAA Tournament didn't seem like a realistic goal anymore, maybe just a respectable finish in the conference.
But the Panthers program has long moved past mediocre aspirations. So Bohannon, Jesperson and Washpun huddled up and decided that Northern Iowa was simply done with losing and that it was up to them to make sure of it.
What followed was a 12-1 finish, capped by a thrilling 56-54 win over Evansville in the league tournament final that wrapped up the Panthers' seventh NCAA tourney trip since 2004. The bracket will be released Sunday and the Panthers (22-12) can't wait.
''A lot of teams in the country would have laid down and accepted that this season is a failure. It doesn't really matter how we finish. But that not how it is around here. We're not going to lay down'' Jesperson said. ,
There were tangible reasons for Northern Iowa's resurgence, such as a return to health, harder practice habits and the confidence that comes with winning. But the Panthers say the biggest reason they didn't roll over is the program's culture of accountability and veteran leadership that has been a presence here for more than a decade. One-and-done players aren't often seen at UNI, where players are expected to develop at their own pace, flourish as upperclassmen and set an example for the younger guys to follow.
It's a formula that has turned the Panthers into one of the nation's most consistent mid-majors.
Former coach Greg McDermott got it started, taking a once-moribund program to the NCAA Tournament each year from 2004-06. Ben Jacobson had Northern Iowa back in the tournament by 2009, and the following season the senior-laden Panthers were the darlings of March Madness after knocking off top-seeded Kansas to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
Last season, using the same veteran formula that had worked so well in 2010, Northern Iowa won a school-record 31 games.
''Most of the guys on this year's team watched how much more (last year's team) put into last year in the spring, summer and fall. They saw them change in terms of their preparation and their determination,'' Jacobson said. ''When you're a part of that, the last thing you want to do is be the guys that allowed that to slip.''
Still, most didn't believe this particular team was likely to make a tournament push - right up until they beat the Tar Heels and the Cyclones. And then, things started to fall apart.
A three-week stretch of minor injuries and a flu bug that ran through the locker room precipitated a 1-6 stretch that made even an NIT bid a longshot.
Northern Iowa's senior leaders, like they've done for years, pulled the program out of its tailspin. The turnaround was capped, rather fittingly, with Washpun's buzzer-beating jumper in the Valley title game.
''The reason it happened was Bo, Wes and Paul. They didn't get completely sideways,'' Jacobson said. ''The only reason it all came together was that those three guys did not go south. Had they gone south, we were never coming out of it.''
Unlike many teams headed for the tournament, the Panthers had to ''earn ''the right to believe it can win,'' according to Jacobson.
''We understood that if we came together we could do anything. If you have that belief, it's college basketball. You can do anything,'' Bohannon said. ''Going into the tournament, we don't really care who we play because we understand that we can beat anyone.''
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