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The stars of the NCAA Cinderella stories
We approach the Sweet 16 having witnessed magical runs by teams like Northern Iowa and St. Mary’s so let’s take a quick look back at two defining players that helped them get here. Tomorrow we’ll review the teams that are left and the possibility of an all mid-tier Final Four.
This year’s NCAA tournament opening weekend pulled out all the stops and set the stage for what could go down as one of the best tournaments ever. In particular there were the thrilling last second heroics of #9 Northern Iowa to defeat #8 UNLV and a dominating win by #10 St. Mary’s over #7 Richmond. Both teams followed up those wins with spectacular surprises against Kansas and Villanova to leap onto the national scene. It has been a good March for students, alumni and fans of both schools.
For some the story gets even better, especially if you are Ali Farokhmanesh. The senior guard for Northern Iowa, son of an Iranian volleyball pro, was minimally recruited out of high school and landed with the Panthers after attending two junior colleges. Northern Iowa assistant coach P.J. Hogan recently told Sports Illustrated that the player Farokhmanesh most reminds him of is “a towel boy”. I get the feeling that a few years from now we’ll be seeing a movie about this young man and his talented, balanced Northern Iowa Panthers team.
UNI started the tournament with a victory over UNLV thanks to a game-winning 3-pointer by Farokhmanesh with less than five seconds to play against UNLV. The win was the Panthers’ first NCAA tournament win in 20 years.
That shot alone would have written a fairytale ending to his collegiate career, but with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, Farokhmanesh sank another clutch 3-pointer, this time with 30 seconds left against Kansas. The shot propelled Northern Iowa to a win that was instantly the biggest upset of the tournament, a 69-67 thriller over top seeded Kansas. It is no wonder that Sports Illustrated decided to place him on the cover of the upcoming March 29th edition.
Meanwhile over in the South region, Omar Samhan, the outspoken redshirt senior center for the St. Mary’s Gaels, was busy writing his own NCAA story.
After a dominating effort against Richmond (29 points, 12 rebounds), Samhan scored 32 points to upend #2 Villanova and eliminate the Wildcats from the tournament. The victory by St. Mary’s was only their second ever NCAA tournament win and the first since 1959.
Samhan, who has “BEAST” tattooed on the inside of his lower lip, is charismatic and has no shortage of confidence. He made headlines Tuesday providing several memorable quotes for the media. While the Panthers seem to have embraced their Cinderella perception, Omar Samhan bucks away from it being applied to the Gaels. “Cinderella implies we’re lucky or it’s a fairytale. Who do we have to beat for people to think this isn’t a fluke?” On his Twitter feed he announced “16 teams left. Why can’t the Gaels be the last one standin???” Given the way he is leading his team, that question is becoming a tough one to argue.
Do you think we’ll see either team in the Elite Eight? My guess is Northern Iowa has the better chance thanks to their lockdown defense, but I wouldn’t bet against Samhan just yet.
PHOTO: Northern Iowa guard Ali Farokhmanesh (R) leads his team in celebration after defeating Kansas in their NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament game in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, March 20, 2010. REUTERS/Bill Waugh