OKLAHOMA CITY -- Timeouts tick me off. They tick you off. They tick everybody off, right? All those timeouts in the final seconds of a game? UNLV didn't succumb to the cliché. UNLV didn't call a timeout in the final 37 seconds of its tie game with Northern Iowa on Thursday night.
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And UNLV has the loss to show for it.
Northern Iowa senior Ali Farokhmanesh made a 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left to give the ninth-seeded Panthers a 69-66 win over No. 8 UNLV -- a game-winning shot that came after the Rebels swallowed their final timeout.
The Rebels had one to call. They had tied the score at 66 on a 3-pointer by Oscar Bellfield with 37 seconds left, and they had a timeout available to set up their defense, and they didn't use it. Since Northern Iowa had already run out of timeouts, this game was going to come down to the basketball IQ of the players: Northern Iowa's acumen vs. UNLV's acumen.
Looks like that was a no-brainer.
Northern Iowa starts three seniors and a redshirt junior, and that redshirt junior is point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe. He's been around four years, and he knew what to do with 37 seconds left. He turned those 37 seconds into a microcosm of this game, and every game the Panthers play. He dribbled and dribbled, siphoning time off the clock, shrinking the game.
That's how Northern Iowa does it. The Panthers funnel the game clock like sand down an hourglass, shrink-wrapping the game down to the final minutes and then trusting that their combination of experience and intelligence will beat that of their opponent. It has worked 29 times in 33 games this season, a hell of a record for a team that outscores its opponents by less than nine points per game. Northern Iowa doesn't demolish you. Northern Iowa outlasts you.
And Northern Iowa outlasted UNLV. The game was tied with 37 seconds left, and it was still tied with about seven seconds left. Ahelegbe was still dribbling, going nowhere, but going nowhere with a purpose. From the sideline, Kruger kept sending defenders at Ahelegbe. He wanted to get those last sands stuck, do something to disrupt the hourglass, but it wasn't going to happen. Ahelegbe had scored Northern Iowa's last eight points, and he was determined to score two or three more, but finally UNLV's double-teaming forced him to make a decision, and he made the right one. Of course he did. That's what he does. That's what Northern Iowa does.
Ahelegbe passed to guard Johnny Moran 35 feet from the basket, and Moran immediately whipped a long pass across the court to Farokhmanesh, standing alone outside the 3-point arc.
A word about that ...
Farokhmanesh should never have been alone outside the arc. Not early in that final possession, and definitely not late. This is obvious hindsight, but it's also obvious, period: UNLV should have used its last timeout before the possession began so Kruger could have given his team such obvious advice -- don't leave Farokhmanesh alone. Not ever.
This is a kid, Farokhmanesh, who already had helped UNI beat Old Dominion, Drake, Denver and Iowa State this season with buckets in the final minutes, even the final seconds. Ahelegbe called Farokhmanesh "the best shooter in the country," and while that's not true, Farokhmanesh is clearly one of the most clutch shooters in the country, especially for a guy shooting a relatively modest 36.8 percent on 3-pointers. Farokhmanesh already had made two long 3's midway through the second half, and he was 4 of 8 from distance entering that final possession.
And UNLV left him alone. But that's what UNLV does. It does silly stuff like let Tre'Von Willis and Chace Stanback jack 3-pointers when they can't make them. It has defensive lapses. It loses focus, and boom! Trouble. I don't know who to blame for it. Maybe nobody. Maybe Kruger's choice of personnel.
Kruger has made UNLV relevant again, but he has done it by turning UNLV into Transfer U. The best three or four players on roster are from somewhere else, including leading scorer Willis (from Memphis) and No. 2 scorer Stanback (UCLA) and versatile, but injured, wing Derrick Jasper (Kentucky). Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas will become eligible next season. Terrific. More people from elsewhere. It's not the most stable way to run a program, and when games come down to a final play, a final second, building on such an unstable foundation might be a problem.
It was Thursday. Well, something was a problem Thursday. Because as Ahelegbe dribbled down the clock and passed to Moran, UNLV left the most dangerous shooter on the floor, Farokhmanesh, alone.
And then on offense, after bumbling around for several seconds and calling timeout with 1.6 seconds left, the best UNLV could come up with was a last-second 3-pointer by Willis, who shoots 32.4 percent from distance and was 1 of 4 on the game. Willis missed, but it didn't count. He didn't get the shot off on time. On the bright side, it was UNLV's final mental lapse of the season. There won't be any more, because the Rebels are done.
Northern Iowa won its second NCAA tournament game, 20 years after its first. The Panthers figure to get No. 1 Kansas on Saturday. They'll milk the clock on offense and defend on defense and basically cover the game in shrink-wrap. They'll hope it gives them a chance to see what happens in the final minute or two. That's what the Panthers do. It's not basketball heaven, but it's Northern Iowa.