Friday, March 19, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
- Box Score: UNI 69, UNLV 66
- Instant Analysis: Young Rebels have nothing to be ashamed about
- Notebook: Rebels left feeling generally positive about 2009-10 season
- LIVE GAME BLOG: Northern Iowa's late three buries Rebels in OKC, 69-66
- 2009-10 UNLV Schedule/Results
- All Sun UNLV men's basketball coverage
OKLAHOMA CITY — Every year, during the first week of the NCAA tournament, CBS makes its mark by reliving classic finishes from tournaments past.
And when Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh got a clean look at a 25-foot 3-pointer in a tied game against UNLV with just seconds remaining Thursday night at the Ford Center, there was an eerie feeling in the building that told you another memory was about to be made.
The ball splashed through the net with just less than five seconds remaining and ultimately spelled the end of a 25-9 campaign for the Rebels, who lost a first-round NCAA Tournament game for the first time in the Lon Kruger era, 69-66.
Maybe the only ones who didn't have that feeling were the UNLV players, who just minutes earlier had kept the game from spiraling out of their control when trailing by nine points with 7:22 to play.
The comeback hit its peak with 40 seconds to go when sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield hit a trey from the left wing to tie the game, 66-66.
"When Oscar hit that three, I was thinking win," junior guard Tre'Von Willis said. "I thought we were gonna win the game. That's how we think.
"It hurts. It's not a good feeling at all. The guy made a good shot. I don't think he'll make it two times out of 10. It was about a 27-footer. The guy just knocked it down and I guess they deserved to win from that."
The Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament champions advanced out of the tournament's first round for the first time since 1990 with the win. As a reward, the Panthers will take on the tournament's top overall seed — Kansas — at 2:40 p.m. Las Vegas time Saturday .
UNLV, meanwhile, is left to wonder what could have been had it been able to control the game's tempo the way it did for the first 10 minutes.
A big talking point coming into Thursday's No. 8 vs. No. 9 clash was whose pace the game would be played at. Northern Iowa came in allowing just 54.3 points per game with its careful, slowed-down approach, while UNLV entered averaging 73.3 points a contest, creating easy offense off its stingy pressure defense.
It wound up landing somewhere in the middle, as each team inflicted its style on the other at times.
UNLV bothered UNI early in creating a 20-12 lead midway through the first half. The major offensive spark was Matt Shaw, who came in as a reserve and quickly hit a pair of 3-pointers.
After struggling to get good, open looks on offense up to that point, the Panthers pulled off a 17-6 run, going ahead by as many as three before trailing by a point at the half, 36-35.
"On the defensive end, they just switched everything," UNLV freshman guard Anthony Marshall said. "On offense, they attacked more, putting the ball in (Kwadzo Ahelegbe's) hands, he had a good way of using his body to get into our bodies, keeping us off of him."
While 7-footer Jordan Eglseder, who was a force in the first half with nine points and seven rebounds, took a backseat, Ahelegbe essentially controlled the game for much of the second half.
His craftiness with the ball helped attract defenders and, in turn, put the Panthers in the bonus with just under eight minutes left to play.
"They're a veteran group, and we knew they were going to play hard for all 40 minutes. That's what the tournament's about," Willis said. "We felt like we rattled them a bit, had them on their heels all game long. They were in the bonus both halves early. Free throws kept them in it. I don't think they missed one.
"Just things like that pretty much killed us."
Northern Iowa was 20-of-23 from the line and was 7-of-7 down the stretch after getting into the bonus in the second half.
At the same time, UNI was not letting UNLV get many clean looks on the offensive end.
The Rebels began to look like themselves again late during the frantic run to tie the game and were forced to think on the fly as Northern Iowa took the ball up the floor following Bellfield's 3-pointer with no time on the clock.
While Bellfield guarded the ball up top, Shaw helped off of his man to set a trap up top.
Amidst all of the rotation, Farokhmanesh was set up with just enough space once he took a pass from Johnny Moran. With Willis closing in on him, the shot had his signature, feathery touch, catching only the twine.
"We wanted to double early in the clock, feeling that they wanted to run the clock down for a last play," Kruger said. "They kind of did that instinctively on their own and did a good job. Through it all, the kid steps up and makes a deep three, and credit him for that."
Added UNI teammate Lucas O'Rear: "As soon as it left his hand, I was like, 'Oh, it's going in.' We just had to go down, play some defense and ended up with a win."
O'Rear was the one who then guarded Willis on the other end, as UNLV got a shot in-bounding the ball under the UNI hoop with 1.6 seconds left.
Bellfield's in-bounds pass floated into the grip of the Rebels' leading scorer and most clutch performer, but there wasn't enough time left to create a clean look on time from up top.
Moments later, the team was left in stunned silence in the locker room, with everyone — players, managers and staff — staring blankly at the ground in disbelief.
"I'm proud of the guys, because we responded to adversity," said Steve Jones, one of UNLV's two departing seniors. "It's a good year; there's a good future for the rest of the guys. It's just a terrible way to end it."
Farokhmanesh led all scorers with 17 points, including a 5-of-9 showing from long range.
For UNLV, Willis and Bellfield each tallied 13 points, five assists and no turnovers. Matt Shaw led the way with 14 points in 22 minutes off of the bench, while Chace Stanback shook off a slow start to end the night with 11 points and six rebounds.
But nothing UNLV took away from Thursday night could prove to be as important as the feeling from the immediate aftermath, as a tournament berth will be a minimal expectation in the 2010-11 campaign.
The future is bright for the program, as roughly the entire core of this year's team will be back next season, along with the additions of 6-foot-8 Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas and 6-foot-11 redshirting freshman forward Carlos Lopez.
"After the beginning of the season, beating highly ranked teams, being ranked, competing in the Mountain West for a championship and going to the NCAA Tournament, it's a great opportunity and hopefully it's built up next year some more for us," Bellfield said. "We have to have that ego to want to come back here and do more damage."