Ali Farokhmanesh, Tre'Von Willis

Northern Iowa guard Ali Farokhmanesh (5) runs upcourt next to UNLV guard Tre'Von Willis (33) after sinking a three-point basket in the closing seconds of an NCAA Tournament game on March 18, 2010.

AP file photo

CEDAR FALLS | When March Madness aficionados hear the name Ali Farokhmanesh, a specific play usually comes to mind.

The former Northern Iowa became a household name during the 2010 NCAA Tournament, when his gutsy, pull-up 3-pointer with 35 seconds to play helped the Panthers secure a 69-67 upset of No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the round of 32. The shot lifted UNI to the Sweet 16 and landed the senior guard on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And though he's proud of the shot that catapulted him into the national spotlight, Farokhmanesh doesn't exactly view it in the same light as others. While acknowledging its significance in the history of UNI basketball, Farokhmanesh actually sees the Kansas play as more of a satisfying encore to an even more important shot hit just two days earlier.

To even get in a position to upset the Jayhawks, the Panthers first had to survive an opening round slugfest with UNLV. And following a Oscar Bellfield 3-pointer — which came open due to a Farokhmanesh defensive error — the game was tied at 66 with 37 seconds to play.

UNI's ensuing possession was hardly a thing of beauty, as Panther guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe spent most of it dribbling around the perimeter looking for any opening against the Rebels' high-pressure, trap-heavy defense.

After finally getting some separation from a double team, Ahelegbe tossed the ball to Johnny Moran in the right wing. Moran then worked back to the middle of the floor, drawing the attention of UNLV's Tre'Von Willis, who had been guarding Farokhmanesh as he planted himself in the left corner.

With Willis dropping down to deny the paint, Farokhmanesh sprung open, taking a pass from Moran and quickly releasing what proved to be a game-winning 3 with 4.9 seconds left.

"I caught it, I felt good rhythm going into it," says Farokhmanesh, now an assistant at Drake. "It was one of those things where you just catch the ball in rhythm. You do it so many times over and over, that feeling is just so natural. So I just went up into it and kind of knew it was going in from there."

Within 48 hours, Farokhmanesh's heroics against Kansas ensured the shot against UNLV would all but vanish from the collective memory of college basketball fans. But to those in the program, the significance of the moment is still remembered quite vividly.

"The shot that Ali made in the UNLV game was probably more important than the one he made against Kansas," UNI Coach Ben Jacobson said. "If that one doesn't go in ... you may or may not get the chance to play Kansas.

"That obviously was one of the bigger games in the history of our program. It got us into that round of 32 game against Kansas and we know what that has done for our program."

The 3-pointer against the Rebels also helped erase two decades worth of NCAA Tournament disappointment for UNI. After upsetting Missouri as a 14 seed in 1990, March became a consistent source of frustration and near-misses for the Panthers, who proceeded to lose their next five tournament games by a combined 23 points.

Like Jacobson, Farokhmanesh, a starter for a Panther team that suffered a 61-56 opening-round loss to Purdue the year before, says he also has a preference for his first game-winner, though his reasons are a bit different.

While he certainly doesn't regret pulling the trigger, Farokhmanesh actually views the play against Kansas — a risky launch that came five seconds into the shot clock with the Panthers protecting a 63-62 lead — as "a shot I probably shouldn't have taken."

Regardless of which play is more noteworthy, it's hard to overstate the importance of the 2010 tournament for UNI, and Farokhmanesh takes considerable pride in helping the program get over the postseason hump.

"It was definitely kind of a breakthrough win," he said. "It was one of those moments where you kind of get that monkey off your back. Definitely one of those situations where people were waiting for UNI to break through. That was huge for the program being able to take that next step."

The Panthers and Rebels tangle again tonight in Cedar Falls at 7 p.m.

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