Moments of madness: We'll never forget Farokhmanesh's shot against Kansas

Des Moines Register

Editor's note: This story by former Register sports reporter Andrew Logue originally ran in March 2016.

From across the court, Johnny Moran saw it all.

He watched Ali Farokhmanesh catch a pass from Northern Iowa teammate Kwadzo Ahelegbe. He saw Farokhmanesh then gather himself as Kansas’ Tyrel Reed shuffled back into the lane.

Moran, a sophomore guard for the Panthers, knew what was coming next.

“I was like, ‘Oh, yeah,'" Moran recalled. '"He’s shooting this.’’’

Hit or miss, this would be a defining scene in Northern Iowa athletics.

Ali Farokhmanesh sank the biggest 3-pointer in Northern Iowa history in 2010 against Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Farokhmanesh, Ahelegbe and Moran experienced the emptiness of an early NCAA Tournament exit the year before, in 2009. In fact, two decades had passed since Northern Iowa celebrated much of anything in March.

Now, they were on the verge of a historic second-round upset, leading the top-ranked Jayhawks 63-62.

Holding the ball and letting more time run was the safe approach. The smart one, too. As Farokhmanesh set his feet, there were 37.6 seconds on the game clock and 30 on the shot clock.

Maybe Kansas would foul him. Maybe Sherron Collins or Tyshawn Taylor would force another turnover.

Either way, the Jayhawks would get the ball one more time — if Farokhmanesh followed conventional wisdom.

These Panthers, however, were used to following their instincts, and Farokhmanesh seized a moment rather than let it possibly slip away.

“When you’re playing basketball, if you’re thinking constantly, you’re not playing the game right,” Farokhmanesh said.

A revival

Northern Iowa transitioned to the Division I level in 1980 and knocked off Associated Press No. 11 Missouri in the opening round of the 1990 NCAA Tournament.

Maurice Newby’s buzzer-beating jumper sank the third-seeded Tigers, but the program plummeted from relevance shortly after joining the Missouri Valley Conference in 1991.

During a game at the UNI-Dome a few years later, then-athletic director Rick Hartzell counted 228 spectators.

Greg McDermott, a former Panthers’ player, became coach after a 7-24 finish in 2000-01.

Former UNI basketball coach Greg McDermott instructs Eric Coleman during practice.

Ben Jacobson, a former high school valedictorian from Mayville, N.D., was one of his assistants. He had joined McDermott’s staff at North Dakota State in 2000, a year before they arrived in Cedar Falls.

“We had a lot of work to do when we got here,” Jacobson said. “Fortunately, in Year 3 we got things going.”

Northern Iowa went 21-10 in 2003-04, won the Valley Tournament and ended a 13-year NCAA Tournament drought.

The Panthers followed with NCAA appearances the next two years, making McDermott an attractive coaching candidate for Iowa State and elevating Jacobson to the heir apparent.

“I knew we could get a bigger name," Hartzell told the Register years later. "It really wasn't that hard a decision. I had seen (Jacobson). I watched him. I'd been with him.

"I can't honestly say I knew he would be this good, but I knew he would be really good."

When McDermott took the Iowa State job in 2006, Jacobson was promoted.

“There (were) challenges the entire time,” Jacobson said. “One, to get going, and then to keep us there. It wasn’t until the end of that third NCAA Tournament that (becoming head coach) really even hit me, that this may be a possibility.”

It was Jacobson’s first chance as a head coach, and he went about assembling another NCAA Tournament roster.

More stories in our "Moments of Madness" series:

Assistant coach Ben Jacobson, left, and head coach Greg McDermott talk to their Northern Iowa players in 2005.

A diverse group

By 2009, the Panthers featured sixth man Lucas O’Rear, a 13th-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds; Adam Koch, a future Valley player of the year with plans of being a dentist; and Jordan Eglseder, a 7-foot-1 center from Bellevue.

Then there was Farokhmanesh, an Iowa City West alum who drew minimal attention from college recruiters.

“We knew a little bit about him when he was coming through high school,” Jacobson said. “We didn’t really spend any time recruiting him, but knew about him and watched him.”

The 6-foot Farokhmanesh didn’t pass the eye test, despite earning all-state honors for West and averaging 18.5 points and 5.5 assists as a senior. Those numbers were especially impressive, considering he spent much of his childhood bumping, setting and spiking.

His father, Mashallah, once played for the Iranian national volleyball team. His mother, Cindy Fredrick, was the volleyball coach at Iowa from 2004-08.

Farokhmanesh's basketball career took a detour to Indian Hills Community College and then Kirkwood Community College, where he averaged 16.2 points as a sophomore. By then, he had become a mid-major recruit. 

“Growing up with his parents being coaches, and being coaches at a high level, that certainly provided some motivation for him to want to excel,” Jacobson said. “I also think he was told most of his playing career he was too short, too small, not quick enough, not fast enough.”

Instant impact

At Northern Iowa, the Farokhmanesh effect was immediate.

“The first day, I noticed he was already in the gym getting those shots,” said Moran, who also arrived at Northern Iowa in 2008. “It didn’t take very long to find out who my example was and who I was going to work out with.

“He was kind of a role model for me from the very beginning.”

Farokhmanesh and Moran joined Ahelegbe, Koch, Eglseder and O’Rear to create a formidable nucleus.

They were still trying to jell in late December, with a 6-6 record, until a breakthrough victory at Southern Illinois.

Northern Iowa held the Salukis to 35 percent shooting, while Koch made five free throws over a span of four possessions for a 52-47 lead with less than 3 minutes remaining.

The Panthers eventually won 59-51.

“Everybody wanted to play physical defense, beat up their guys,” Ahelegbe said. “That was the Valley at that time. Getting that win kind of turned us around. … We never looked back.”

Northern Iowa went on an 11-game winning streak and shared the Valley’s regular-season title with Creighton.

A win over Illinois State in the conference tournament final sent the Panthers back to the NCAAs.

Taste of 'Madness'

Ahelegbe remembers feeling overwhelmed when 12th-seeded Northern Iowa entered the Rose Garden in Portland to face fifth-seeded Purdue in 2009.

“I’m not even going to lie — we were nervous as hell,” Ahelegbe said. “There was just so much excitement, like ‘We’re on TV. We’re playing in the NCAA Tournament. We have stickers on our jersey. Oh my gosh, we’re finally here.’’’

To outsiders, Northern Iowa was a novelty.

CBS announcer Kevin Harlan talked to the Register about the difficulties of pronouncing names such as fuh-ROAK-muh-nesh … uh-HEL-ig-buh … even EG-gle-seed-er.

"I've got to make sure they roll off my tongue,” Harlan said. “It took probably a week or two to learn how to pronounce 'Farokhmanesh.' There's some crazy names on this team."

He wasn’t tongue-tied for long.

The Boilermakers were up 32-20 at halftime and advanced to the second round with a 61-56 win.

Matt Painter, a former assistant and head coach at Southern Illinois, would go on to lead the Boilermakers to the Sweet 16.

Northern Iowa never held a lead.

“We forgot there was a basketball game we had to play,” Ahelegbe said. “Obviously, we figured that out, but it was just a little bit too late.”

The results of being eliminated were surreal.

“We played in one of the earlier games,” Moran remembered. “So by the time we lost and got back in Cedar Falls … We were (home) in time to watch the afternoon games.

“That was weird. You’re kind of sitting on your couch watching the games and you’re like, ‘We were in this tournament like four hours ago.’’’

Rough draw

Just one senior graduated from the 2008-09 Panthers, and they added depth with freshmen Anthony James, Marc Sonnen and Jake Koch, Adam’s brother.

Northern Iowa completed another sweep of Valley titles in 2009-10, posting a 28-4 record and spending four weeks in The Associated Press Top 25.

After winning the conference tournament again, dominating Wichita State in the championship game, Moran called his girlfriend.

They ran through possible bracket scenarios, and every possible opponent seemed beatable. Except one …

“We don’t really care who we get matched up with or anything,” Moran thought at the time, “because the only team right now that looks really, really good is Kansas.”

When Selection Sunday rolled around, Northern Iowa was a No. 9 seed, opening against No. 8 UNLV in Oklahoma City.

And then they saw it. On the next line was No. 1 Kansas, 32-2, with an opener against No. 16 Lehigh.

At least one Panther was not intimidated by a possible matchup with the Jayhawks.

“I got a chance to play all those guys,” said Ahelegbe, who grew up in the Minneapolis area and played AAU basketball against elite prospects.

That included Minnesota native Cole Aldrich and Collins, who grew up in Chicago.

Both were all-Americans for the Jayhawks, along with twin forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris.

“I didn’t look at Cole as some big figure,” Ahelegbe said. “It’s just Cole Aldrich to me.

“I played Sherron a lot of times. So it wasn’t anything like ‘Oh my gosh.’

“It was just another game on TV.”

The forgotten shot

People tend to forget Farokhmanesh’s game-winner against UNLV in Round 1. That’s OK with him.

“I just remember the possession before, I gave up the 3 to tie the game. Nobody remembers that,” Farokhmanesh said.

“So really, I felt like I had to pay back my head coach.”

The Panthers were up 58-49 with 7:16 left, but the Rebels rallied to tie it 66-all with 37 seconds to go.

Jacobson had used his last timeout with more than a minute left, so it was up to the Panthers to read and react on the fly.

“They were known for trapping,” Farokhmanesh said. “They continued to trap and luckily Kwadzo made the right pass to Johnny, and then Johnny made a good one to the opposite side to me for a shot.”

Farokhmanesh’s swish came with 4.9 seconds left and was from nearly the same spot on the court where Newby hit his game-winner 20 years earlier.

Only this time, something even more memorable lay ahead.

Unlikely perimeter threat

More than 10 million television viewers tuned in.

Another 13,484 were packed into Oklahoma City’s Ford Center, most of them wearing Kansas' crimson and blue.

This time, Northern Iowa was not flustered.

“You don’t even realize what’s going on,” Moran said, “until you’re out there playing.”

The Panthers took early leads of 10-2, 17-9 and 33-24.

Eglseder provided an unlikely spark, hitting two 3-point baskets. He had made just one shot from behind the arc all season.

“It wasn’t necessarily in the script,” Moran said. “But I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t know he could make 3s. He just never shot them in games.

“I guess it was an interesting time to start shooting them.”

Farokhmanesh made all three of his 3-pointers in the first half but missed his first five attempts after the break.

And the mighty Jayhawks started to surge.

'You can’t be serious'

The night before, ESPN’s Dick Vitale declared Northern Iowa had no chance to beat Kansas.

He wasn’t the only one. The Jayhawks, two years removed from winning a national championship, were ranked No. 1 for 15 of a possible 19 weeks that season.

Even President Barack Obama picked Kansas to win it all when he filled out his bracket.

Yet, the Panthers were ahead 52-41 midway through the second half before the Jayhawks amped up their intensity.

“It’s that desperation about the NCAA Tournament,” Ahelegbe said. “When you’re down, your back is up against the wall and this is it.

“All the pressure was on them, really.”

Northern Iowa committed four turnovers in a span of 2:05.

Taylor and Marcus Morris combined to make four straight free throws. Collins’ jumper brought Kansas within a single point.

Suddenly, Northern Iowa’s lead was 63-62 with 44 seconds remaining.

“They put the pressure back on us late, and all we had to do was let that clock dwindle down,” Ahelegbe said. “For them, it’s balls to the wall. There’s nothing left.”

The Panthers needed someone to deliver a knockout.

Kansas tried squeezing off passing lanes, with all five defenders positioned upcourt, leaving the back end wide open.

Jake Koch inbounded the ball to Moran. Moran tossed it back to Koch, who passed to Ahelegbe along the right out-of-bounds line near half-court. 

It was nearly picked off, but Ahelegbe corralled the ball.

“We had trouble breaking the press,” Jacobson recalled. “So my thought process at the time was we have got to get the ball into the front court ...

“When Kwadzo turned and threw it up to Ali, my thought was, ‘We accomplished what we needed to.’”

Farokhmanesh ended up on the right wing and set his sights on the basket. He saw Kansas’ Reed back off.

“Then I didn’t really see anything else besides the hoop,” Farokhmanesh said.

He stopped, set his feet, then went airborne and he released the ball as Collins flew toward him from the left.

The most beautiful swish in Northern Iowa history.

66-62 Panthers. 35.2 seconds left.

CBS analyst Dan Bonner and Harlan, who was again calling a Panthers game, both shouted “GOOOOOD” as the shot dropped through.

Moran knew what the result would be.

“I was right underneath the hoop,” Moran said as he thought of Farokhmanesh, who finished with 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting. “It sounds cliche, but right when it left his hand I knew it was in.

“I rebounded for him a million times, and I knew that ball was going in.”

The crowd was stunned. As Collins brought the ball upcourt, Bonner exclaimed, “You can’t be serious with that shot.” 

Tough act to follow

The next few days were a blur.

Farokhmanesh landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a signature image of him leaning back and releasing a primal scream after Jake Koch drew a charge in the waning moments.

Jacobson agreed to a contract extension (a 10-year deal worth $450,000 annually, plus raises). And the Panthers headed to St. Louis for a Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan State.

The Spartans brought an end to Northern Iowa’s run, 59-52.

“Kwadzo wishes he could get the first few minutes of the Purdue game back (in 2009). I wish we could add a couple more minutes on to the end of that Michigan State game,” Moran said. “See if we could come back and get them.”

Tom Izzo’s Michigan State team built a 31-20 edge in rebounding, muscling its way to the Elite Eight and eventually the Final Four.

“That was our one weakness,” Ahelegbe said. “We did our best boxing out and stuff, but those few extra possessions they got really made a difference in the game.”

Farokhmanesh finished 1-for-6 from 3-point range.

'Crazy to think. ... We got those guys'

The son of volleyball coaches is now a basketball assistant at Nebraska.

Whenever he’s recognized, it usually doesn’t take long for somebody to mention “the shot.”

“Every once in a while, I still get a reminder,” Farokhmanesh said. “It’s always good things to say, unless I’m somewhere near the Kansas area.”

Moran is now an assistant under Jacobson and spent last Sunday wondering where this year’s Panthers would head for March Madness. It was a return trip to Oklahoma City, and a first-round game against Texas.

Ahelegbe plays basketball professionally in Germany. Every now and then, he’ll watch an NBA game and catch a glimpse of Marcus and Markieff Morris, or maybe Aldrich.

“Some of my younger German teammates ask me if I played in the NCAA Tournament,” Ahelegbe says. “I show them some clips and they’re like, ‘That’s the twins. You played against those guys?’

“I’m like, ‘Yeah, I played against them.’’’

 “It’s crazy to think,” Ahelegbe said. “We got those guys.’’’