Northern Exposure MASON BASKETBALL SENDS WIN PROBABILITIES PACKING WITH 54-50 WIN IN CEDAR FALLS

26-1.

Prior to the Patriots arrival in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on a frigid, snowy evening late in 2016, just one team had ventured into the McLeod Center and won a game in the month of November.

What’s more, UNI had put together a 56-10 non-conference record all time in the building and a 125-31 mark overall.

When analyzing the factors involved in the Panthers’ dominant home record, it’s easy to see why the program has flourished in the Hawkeye State.

First, the Panthers have just flat out been good, year in and year out.

Northern Iowa has been a Missouri Valley Conference power over the past 10+ years

UNI has finished in the top half of the Missouri Valley Conference in a league-best 14-straight years and has posted 11 20-win seasons since 2003-04.

The Panthers entered the year having made seven NCAA Tournament appearances since 2004 – the most in the Missouri Valley (yup, including Wichita State) – and had put together a number of memorable Tourney performances during that run.

Few fans can forget the zealous late-game strategy of one Ali Farokhmanesh, who in 2010 took a step back 3-pointer, rather than run the clock down, to send UNI to the Sweet 16 with a upset win over top seed Kansas.

Or just two years ago, when Paul Jesperson hit a halfcourt heave at the buzzer to send the Panthers past Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns in the Round of 64.

Ok, so the team has been one of the most successful mid-majors in the country over the past 10+ years.

But the home environment certainly matches that elite performance on the court.

The McLeod Center seats 7,018 and is at capacity nearly every contest. The boisterous student section clads itself in gold and purple, including the famous overalls crew that sits in the front row. But most impressively, the students perform a choreographed routine during a second half media timeout known as “The Interlude” that has gained the group national attention.

It’s a pretty impressive sight in person and in big games, the building just flat out shakes.

On top of that, Cedar Falls, Iowa, isn’t exactly the easiest place to get to. Teams can fly to Des Moines or the Quad Cities and bus the 2+ hours it takes to arrive. Or, in the case of George Mason men’s basketball, even with a charter flight into nearby Waterloo, the team still had to grab a pit stop in Akron to refuel.

Mason chartered to UNI on a frosty late November day

Despite the odds of winning at UNI (KenPom.com gave the Patriots a 14% chance to win), Mason arrived in Iowa with some confidence. The Patriots were in the midst of a three-game winning streak after beginning the year 1-3.

And historically, one of those 10 non-conference wins by a Northern Iowa opponent in McLeod had come during the 2011 BracketBuster, when Mason won 77-71 en route to an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Even the team’s 2014 meeting, when UNI clearly fielded the better team, went to overtime in Cedar Falls.

So Mason held confident and prepared for what was sure to be a battle in the Midwest.

The Patriots arrived in Waterloo the evening of Tuesday, November 29, and many of the players remarked on a certain geographic trend they were seeing as they boarded the bus to the hotel from the tarmac.

“Wow…it’s really flat here.”

Sight lines stretched for days as the bus passed Hy-Vees, Culvers and a plethora of other Midwest cultural staples.

Cedarl Falls, Iowa

The next morning, the team arrived at the McLeod Center for shootaround, which is attached to the football-centric UNI Dome. The whole athletic campus is well put together and easily accessible internally for fans during the frigid winter months.

The UNI Dome and McLeod Center combine to form the UNI Sports Complex

After shootaround, the Patriots returned to the hotel and began their typical gameday prep. Pre-game meal was around 3:30 local time and the team arrive at the arena around 5:30.

A good crowd poured in as the pre-game clock wound down, excited for the continuation of a non-conference series that has produced a number of quality games early in the season.

UNI was coming off wins over Arizona State and Oklahoma and had narrowly fell to top-10 (and future Elight Eight qualifier) Xavier in the Tire Pros Invitational in Orlando. The Panthers sported preseason Missouri Valley Player of the Year Jeremy Morgan and looked the part of a high quality mid-major as starting lineups were announced.

UNI was coming off wins over Oklahoma and Arizona State and dropped a close game to then No. 7 Xavier, which would go on to reach the Elite Eight in March as a No. 11 seed

The ball tipped a little after 7 p.m. Central Time, and there was only one word to describe the opening minutes.

UG-LY.

Over the first 12 minutes, the Patriots put together an incredible defensive effort, limiting the Panthers to just 1-of-17 shooting. A triple from Otis Livingston II gave Mason an 11-6 edge and a lay-in from Marquise Moore extended the lead to 10 (18-8) and capped a 7-0 run for the Green & Gold.

The Patriots went cold from there, and UNI creeped back into the game. The Panthers hit three consecutive 3-pointers and as they found their shooting touch, the Mason lead began to slip away. UNI closed the half on an 8-0 run and took a 28-24 lead into the break.

Mason shot 31 percent in the half and was 2-of-11 from 3-point land (woof), but on the opposite end, the Patriots held UNI to just 23.3 percent (7-30).

Jaire Grayer led Mason with 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the win at UNI

Mason fans would quickly find out that a strength of this Patriot unit throughout 2016-17 would be 3-point defense. This game may have been the coming out party.

19 of UNI’s 30 shots in the first half were triples, and UNI hit just 26.3 percent of them.

Lesser teams may have seen a lead slip away in one of the toughest places to play in the country and panic. But Mason showed a resilience in games all year that was apparent in Cedar Falls that night.

The Patriots rocketed out of the gate in the second half, converting four of their first five field goal attempts to regain the lead by four (36-32) at the 14:22 mark of the period.

From there, a 4+ minute scoring drought by the Patriots helped UNI pull even (37-37), then take a 42-37 advantage with 7:37 to go.

Mason held the Panthers scoreless over the next four minutes to stay close and a 3-pointer from Grayer moved the Patriots within two (44-42) with 4:31 to go. The teams exchanged scores over the next few possessions, but Livingston exploded to the rim and scored to put Mason back in front (48-47) with 1:40 to play.

After a UNI miss, the Panthers fouled with 50 seconds to go and still had two opportunities to put Mason to the line in a 1-and-1 situation.

At the time, the Patriots were still shooting below .700 as a team from the charity stripe, but this game showed the potential that turned the Green & Gold into a top-50 free throw shooting team in the country by season’s end.

Freshman Justin Kier hit the front end of a 1-and-1 situation twice in the final three minutes with the Patriots either trailing or holding a slim lead.

Then, Marquise Moore went 2-for-2 on a key trip to put Mason up 52-49 with 19 seconds left. Mason led by just two with nine seconds left (52-50), but again, Kier went 2-of-2 to squash any chance of a UNI comeback.

Freshman Justin Kier put together a breakout game of sorts at UNI

In the end, Mason shot just 36 percent from the floor (its second lowest mark of the year) and no player posted more than 14 points (Jaire Grayer - 14 pts, 7 reb).

But the Patriots hit clutch free throws and dug in defensively to get a win that really started to turn the heads back in Fairfax.

Coming into the game, UNI was a top-5 RPI team and that KenPom.com win probability of 14 percent was one of the lowest for the Patriots all season.

But as the 2016 presidential election and 2017 Super Bowl proved, win probabilities can be a bit overrated.

"This was a gritty win by our team tonight," head coach Dave Paulsen said after the victory. "Northern Iowa plays exceptionally well in this building. It wasn't always pretty, but to compete and fight like we did shows maturity. I thought our team grew tonight."

Mason’s stout defensive effort stood out most. After that 23.3 percent half for UNI in the first, Mason kept them below 30 percent in the second. UNI finished the game with a 25.9 percent field goal mark and just a 25 percent (8-32) clip from long distance.

The 25.9 percent field goal percentage marked Northern Iowa's lowest shooting clip in the 11-year history of the McLeod Center.

Preseason MVC Player of the Year Jeremy Morgan – who ended the year with a 14.8 ppg scoring average – was held to just six points (2-13 FG) by the suffocating Mason defense.

Mason held MVC Preseason Player of the Year Jeremy Morgan to six points (2-13 FG)

After the game, Mason boarded the charter and enjoyed a jubilant flight back to the DMV. The win marked Mason’s fourth in a row and the streak would continue all the way to nine.

National pundits like Jon Rothstein, Seth Davis and John Feinstein recognized publicly that a turnaround in Fairfax was imminent.

To use a paraphrase a quote that Rothstein has employed for years on Twitter…

The buzz was palpable.

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