OKLAHOMA CITY — With the final seconds ticking away and Northern Iowa without a timeout, the chance to break an NCAA tournament funk came down to a bit of improvisation.
Kwadzo Ahelegbe dribbled down the clock and Ali Farokhmanesh found himself open against UNLV's trapping defense for the decisive 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left as the Panthers ended a 20-year drought in the NCAA tournament with a 69-66 victory Thursday night in the Midwest Regional.
"That's what you dream for is to make a shot like that," Farokhmanesh said. "It just felt good to actually do it."
After burning its final timeout with 1:22 to play, Northern Iowa (29-4) gave the Runnin' Rebels the chance to tie when Ahelegbe drained the clock and couldn't get an open shot against UNLV's pressure. The shot clock ran out, and Oscar Bellfield tied it at 66 with his 3-pointer from the left corner with 37 seconds left.
Take 2 resulted in far better results for ninth-seeded Northern Iowa, even if "closer to a fire drill than a set call" was how coach Ben Jacobson described it.
Ahelegbe ran the shot clock down to 9 seconds before he swung the ball to Johnny Moran on the right wing. He whipped it to the opposite side to Farokhmanesh, who took advantage of an opening in the defense to sink the game-winner.
The No. 8 seed 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.
Northern Iowa advanced to face No. 1 overall seed Kansas, which beat Lehigh 90-74, on Saturday.
Farokhmanesh finished with 17 points, including three 3-pointers in the second half, and Ahelegbe added 13 points as the Panthers won in the NCAAs for the first time since upsetting third-seeded Missouri in 1990.
Farokhmanesh's shot was from about the same spot as Maurice Newby's 3-pointer that beat Missouri with 4 seconds left 20 years ago.
"I think that it gets talked about at our place, and in a positive way. It's something that our program is very proud of, the win that we had 20 years ago against Missouri," Jacobson said. "It gets talked about, it gets written about and it should. That was certainly a building block in our program. ... Being able to win a game in the tournament now after 20 years, I think it's significant. I think as you continue to build your program, it's a big part of it."
Jacobson took over the program four years ago when Greg McDermott moved on to Iowa State after leading UNI to three straight NCAA tournament berths.
In all, the Panthers have made the field five of the last seven years – with the first four trips ending in first-round losses by exactly five points. This time, Northern Iowa claimed its highest seed in school history behind a defense allowing only 54.3 points per game – the second-lowest total in the nation.
"That's why we win games is because our defense is consistent," Farokhmanesh said. "Your offense is up and down usually, but as long as your defense is there you have a chance to win basketball games."
In the second half, the Panthers were able to turn the game into their sort of grinding style and prevented UNLV from becoming only the second team to score 70 points against them this season. The Runnin' Rebels, who were 22-2 when scoring at least 70 points, fell to 3-7 when failing to reach that mark.
It was a rare first-round loss for the program, which fell to 13-3 in its NCAA openers. Coach Lon Kruger also 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.
"Losing in the first round is a little disappointing," Willis said. "But overall, we had a good season. We're definitely going to have our good days ahead of us."
Reserve forward Matt Shaw scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half to lead UNLV. Willis and Bellfield added 13 points apiece and Chace Stanback had 11 points while leading the Runnin' Rebels out of a 58-49 hole with 7:16 remaining.
Bellfield said the Rebels had to "really dig down deep and just really compete."
"That's what we did and it paid off for a while," he said. "We just broke down at the end where he just got an open shot and just knocked it down."