Using a grind-it-out defense and a clutch shot by Ali Farokhmanesh, Northern Iowa is moving on in the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades.
Farokhmanesh hit a 3-pointer from the left wing with 4.9 seconds left to lift ninth-seeded Northern Iowa over UNLV 69-66 on Thursday night in the first round of the Midwest Regional.
Farokhmanesh found himself open after Kwadzo Ahelegbe had chewed up the majority of the clock following Oscar Bellfield's tying 3-pointer for UNLV with 35 seconds remaining. Johnny Moran reversed the ball to Farokhmanesh, who drained the jumper with the shot clock running down.
The Runnin' Rebels (25-9) got one last chance to tie it, but Tre'Von Willis didn't get his 3-pointer off before the final buzzer and it was off-target anyway.
Farokhmanesh finished with 17 points, including three 3-pointers in the second half, and Ahelegbe added 13 points as the Panthers (29-4) snapped a 20-year drought in the NCAA tournament. Northern Iowa hadn't won a game in the NCAAs since upsetting third-seeded Missouri in 1990.
Reserve forward Matt Shaw scored 14 points to lead UNLV, which had a rare first-round blemish added to its NCAA tournament record and fell to 13-3 in openers. Willis and Bellfield added 13 points apiece and Chace Stanback had 11 points while leading the Runnin' Rebels out of a late nine-point hole.
Coach Lon Kruger had his personal streak of five straight first-round wins snapped. He had won his last three openers at Illinois and his first two at UNLV.
This time, it's the Panthers — and the stingiest defense left in the NCAA field — moving on.
Northern Iowa had become a regular in the NCAAs of late, making the field in five of the last seven years, but hadn't been able to get over the hump with a string of four straight first-round losses by exactly five points apiece. Claiming their highest seed ever in the NCAAs, the Panthers had their best chance behind a defense allowing only 54.3 points per game.
Farokhmanesh hit a pair of 3-pointers during an 11-1 stretch for Northern Iowa as the Runnin' Rebels went more than 5 minutes without a basket midway through the second half. Adam Koch's three-point play off a transition basket put the Panthers up 58-49 with 7:16 remaining.
But even their lockdown defense couldn't hold.
Shaw finally got UNLV back on the board with a putback of Anthony Marshall's miss and Stanback, who spent just 27 seconds on the bench after picking up his fourth foul, nailed a 3-pointer and a jumper to close the gap to 58-56 with 5:24 to play.
UNLV cut it to one on three occasions and then finally pulled even after forcing the Panthers into a shot-clock violation with 57.2 seconds left. But the Rebels lost for the first time in 20 games this season when leading at halftime.
Shaw made all four of his shots and scored 12 points in the first half as UNLV headed into the break with a one-point lead. Shaw and Stanback hit back-to-back 3-pointers in a run of eight straight points that put the Runnin' Rebels up 20-12, but Northern Iowa responded with a 14-4 spurt to take the lead back on its own consecutive 3-pointers — from Marc Sonnen and Farokhmanesh.