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OKLAHOMA CITY — Even in the throes of the celebration, the question had to be asked: Didn’t Paul Jesperson have to call that bank?
“No! Not in March Madness you don’t,” Northern Iowa senior guard Wes Washpun said early Saturday morning. “You take it how you can get it.”
Jesperson, the Panthers’ 6' 6" senior guard, stood a few feet away and tried to explain how a Shining Moment feels. “I’m sure Ali had a crazy feeling like this going through his mind,” Jesperson said.
Ali is former Northern Iowa guard Ali Farokhmanesh, who may now be the owner of only the second and third most amazing shots a Panther has ever made during an NCAA tournament game in Oklahoma City. Let’s compare the three shots:
Farokhmanesh’s first miracle three-pointer came in the Round of 64 in 2010, when he sank a 25-footer from the left wing with five seconds remaining to lift No. 9 Northern Iowa to a win against UNLV.
Farokhmanesh’s second miracle three-pointer was just two days later. He hit from the right wing with 35 seconds remaining to propel the Panthers to a win against No. 1 overall seed Kansas.
And six years after both of those, Jesperson made his visit to the bank. After Texas guard Isaiah Taylor hit a floater to tie the score with 2.7 seconds remaining during Friday’s first-rounder, Jesperson caught senior guard Matt Bohannon’s inbound pass, dribbled once and launched a half-court shot off the glass and through the net to give the 11th-seeded Panthers a 75–72 win.
The Panthers used to mess around with half-court shots before practices, but Jesperson hadn’t tried one in a while. He dribbled left only because he felt he had a better chance if he could shoot as close to straight-on as possible. “I could go out there 10 times, and I don’t know how many I’d make,” said Jesperson, who spent two seasons at Virginia before transferring to UNI. “I’m just glad that one went in.”
Washpun, who watched the shot from behind Jesperson, had little doubt when the ball left his teammate’s hand. “When he let it go, I was like, ‘Man, that’s straight. Oh man, that’s in,’” Washpun said. “Then it was just, find Paul and tackle him.”
As for where Jesperson's shot fits in NCAA tournament lore, we now know how Butler forward Gordon Hayward's prayer in 2010 might have looked had Hayward taken just a little off. That shot, which would have beaten mighty Duke and given the Cinderella Bulldogs to a national title, might have been the most memorable moment in American sports history had it fallen. Instead, only former Arkansas Razorback U.S. Reed, who hit a half-court shot to eliminate Louisville in 1981, and Jesperson can claim such long daggers in the tourney.
There will be time to break down Northern Iowa’s impending matchup with No. 3 Texas A&M on Sunday. For now, let’s focus on the shot, because it joined some pretty illustrious company in a town that might need to be renamed Buzzer Beater City. Remember, Valparaiso guard Bryce Drew was across Reno Avenue at the old Myriad when he sank one of the NCAA tournament's greatest final shots in 1998 to stun Ole Miss. For that shot, the Crusaders were down two and had two-tenths of a second fewer than the Panthers did Friday.
Less than a month ago, Steph Curry was about 10 feet away from the spot where Jesperson launched—shooting at the other basket—when he hit one of the greatest shots in NBA history to give the Golden State Warriors a win against the Buzzer Beater City Thunder.
Feel free to argue which of these was the most improbable. One Northern Iowa grad who knows a little bit about Hail Marys has an excellent theory on buzzer-beater rankings. “That was pretty special,” former UNI and NFL quarterback Kurt Warner said as he surveyed a jubilant Panthers locker room. “When it comes to shots like that, the last one is always the sweetest.”
This win was extra sweet because of the way new heroes rose. Northern Iowa star Washpun, who put the Panthers in the Big Dance with a straight-up-off-the-back-iron-and-down-through-the-net prayer to beat Evansville in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament final, couldn’t play his usual attacking style after picking up his third foul 17 seconds into the second half. With Washpun either on the bench or holding back on the court, the Longhorns roared back to life. The Panthers had led by as many as 14 in the first half, but Texas wrested away the lead early in the second and the teams seesawed back and forth the rest of the way.
After Washpun committed his fourth foul fighting for a rebound with 9:45 remaining, he abandoned caution. He had backed off Texas guard Taylor when he had three fouls, and it allowed Taylor (game-high 22 points) to lead the Longhorns back. Once he was playing with four fouls, Washpun blocked two potential layups, but the Panthers’ leading scorer—who specializes in slicing through the lane after an incendiary first step—watched from a distance as Northern Iowa’s two biggest shots fell.
Before Jesperson could make his heave, sophomore forward Klint Carlson had to do his best Washpun impression. The Panthers hadn’t made a field goal since the 7:17 mark when the Waverly, Iowa, native blew past 6' 11" Texas senior center Prince Ibeh at the top of the key and hit a layup with 27 seconds remaining to give Northern Iowa a 71–70 lead.
By now, the Panthers should be accustomed to this. In the Missouri Valley tourney, they were tied in the final minute of all three games. “There’s just something about this team, man,” Washpun said. “We just keep figuring it out.” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson takes no credit for his team’s final-minute stoicism. “What they’re doing down the stretch isn’t coaching,” he said. “They’ve found something as a team, and it’s working for them. They’ve found ways to make plays.”
They reached the NCAA tournament because a would-be brick bounced up and fell straight through the net in St. Louis. They advanced in the NCAA tournament by making a half-court bank shot. How could they possibly top those? “Hey,” Bohannon said, “find out Sunday.”