It was a nice gesture from Roy Williams.
Teams like North Carolina rarely travel to Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Northern Iowa Panthers are trekking to Chapel Hill to take on the Tar Heels tonight, which is commonplace in college basketball. The inverse, however, is not.Williams has a good reason to do so. Marcus Paige was the program’s on and off-the-court leader during his four seasons at North Carolina; he also played his high school ball at nearby Linn-Mar. It was a chance for Paige to compete at home in front of his family and friends. UNC would likely pick up the win, and it would be a nice moment for Paige, a man who gave so much to the Tar Heel program in his four years.
It sounded nice in theory. But it didn’t exactly go as scripted for North Carolina.
For starters, Paige couldn’t suit up for the game. He suffered a broken hand a few weeks prior. It was still a contest the Tar Heels were expected to win. They are no strangers to raucous road crowds – they play at Cameron Indoor Stadium once per year, after all.
But on that brisk November night, the environment at the McLeod Center was on another level.
“There have been some big ones, but that was the loudest it had been and the longest that it had stayed that loud,” head coach Ben Jacobson said. “My years are the same as the building, so at that time starting the 10th year, of all the important games and all the sellouts that we’ve had, that’s the loudest it had ever been.”
“You knew if you beat them, you were going to be talked about for days and days to come,” former UNI guard Matt Bohannon said.
Try years, Mr. Bohannon.
The Panthers edged the Tar Heels by a score of 71-67. Wes Washpun led the way with 21 points.
Both teams would go on to have fantastic seasons, though each suffered heartbreaking season-ending defeats. North Carolina was inches away from a national championship before Kris Jenkins became a college basketball legend with one shot. Northern Iowa, meanwhile, rode an NCAA tournament roller-coaster unlike anyone else in 2016. The Panthers defeated Texas in the first round on a half court buzzer-beater as time expired, but in the second round, they blew a 12-point lead in 31 seconds to Texas A&M.
Regardless, nobody can take that North Carolina win away from the Northern Iowa players. They will never forget it.
“When I got a chance to hug my little brother after the game, he hugged me, and I could feel him kind of tearing up on my chest,” Jeremy Morgan said. “And obviously, that made me start tearing up a little bit. Just growing up, we used to always talked about games like that, playing the No. 1 team.”
“Looking back,” Bohannon says now, “I can tell you it’s one of the greatest days I’ve ever had.”
North Carolina takes on Northern Iowa once again tonight. Is more Panther magic in store? For a full oral history of last year’s upset, check out the Des Moines Register.