March 16, 1990 was a historic day for the University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball team.
To write that is a big understatement.
Twenty-five years ago today, in their first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament as a Division I-A program, the 14th seeded Panthers faced the Missouri Tigers, who were seeded 3rd and at one time, were ranked #1 in the polls.
UNI, tied with Mizzou, 71-71, with 10 seconds left, had the ball on the sidelines. Troy Muilenburg inbounded the ball to point guard Dale Turner. Turner dribbles the ball to the right, then reverses back to the left. Maurice Newby comes towards Turner, as Mizzou’s Anthony Peeler doesn’t switch off Turner quick enough as Newby receives the pass from Turner. Newby, with time running out, gathers himself behind the three-point line and lets one fly…
The Tigers, with no timeouts to use, hurry to inbound the ball and heaves it past the basket into the crowd as the buzzer sounds.
The Panthers won, 74-71 over the Tigers. It was one of the biggest upsets in the 1990 tournament and goes down in the annuals as one of the most memorable in Iowa sports history.
There is a distinction that has to be made here, if you don’t mind. The 2010 win versus Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament was the biggest win in the program’s history. The Jayhawks were the top seed and nationally ranked in the top 5 during the 2009-10 season.
While many fans, and rightfully so, will say Kansas ranks #1 as the biggest win, the victory over Mizzou was the most “defining” win for the Panthers’ basketball program.
You can’t dismiss what that win over the Tigers meant to UNI. Until 1981, UNI was a Division II school. When they made the leap to Division I, they went through plenty of growing pains. To Iowa, Iowa State and the rest of the state, Northern Iowa was a blip on the map. Yes, they are a state school, but they were not always treated as equals like their big brothers were.
UNI is the school where the student body is slightly over 90% Iowan. It was known as Iowa State Teachers’ College until 1967. Norm Stewart, the losing coach for Missouri, was the head coach for ISTC from 1962 to 1969. Panthers athletics were known more for wrestling, volleyball, and most times than not, football.
The 1989-90 season for UNI was a defining moment for the team for various reasons. They hosted the Iowa Hawkeyes for the first time in seven decades. The game, held in the UNI-Dome on January 3rd, created a buzz that hasn’t been seen since the Dome opened in late 1975. With the court raised and centered in the middle of Dome, 22,676 fans witnessed and were part of history. It was the largest crowd to watch a college basketball game in state history. That record still stands today.
UNI, behind 15 second half points by reserve Brad Hill, upset the Hawkeyes, 77-74.
In early March, the Panthers hosted the Mid-Continent Conference tournament. After finishing in fourth place in the league, and losers of three of their last five games, there were plenty for UNI to prove. They lost only two games in “Eldon’s Dome of Doom” in the regular season.
After a wild triple overtime win over Illinois-Chicago in the first round, Northern Iowa got a go-ahead basket to lead (Southwest) Missouri State 63-61, the Bears had the ball and a chance to tie or win the game. They were called for traveling with 4 seconds left. The Panthers advanced to the title game against a Wisconsin-Green Bay team that beaten the twice during the season.
With a loud raucous crowd behind them, Northern Iowa stymied the Phoenix and star player (current Virginia coach) Tony Bennett, 53-45, to earn their first ever appearance in the “Big Dance.”
Purple fever was running white-hot through the Cedar Valley and the state. Panthers fans had something to boast about and a moniker for the team: University of Nothing’s Impossible: beating Iowa, winning three games in three nights to win the conference tournament. Nothing was impossible for this team: Jason Reese, Maurice Newby, Troy Muilenburg, Dale Turner, Steve Phyfe, Cedric McCullough, Cam Johnson, Nick Pace, Brad Hill, Jonathon Cox, Scott Socha, Kent Pollpeter, and Steve Deering.
Northern Iowa drew Missouri in the Southeast regional at Richmond, Virginia Friday morning, March 16th.
Here is the full game, without commercials.
See what I mean why I say a “defining” moment for UNI basketball? That season gave the Panthers the foundation they needed to build success…and what we see today, as Northern Iowa returns to the tournament to face Wyoming on Friday.
Since 1990, Northern Iowa has made the NCAA tournament in 2004-06 and 2009-10, and won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in 2004, 2009, 2010, and two weeks ago.
The win against Mizzou turned UNI from a “blip” to a place where getting an easy win was no longer possible. Before beating Kansas and Missouri, Iowa was their biggest win, only to eclipse that two months later, knocking off the Tigers.
Northern Iowa may still be the little brother Iowa and ISU would rather not be bothered with, but there is no disputing this: UNI is no longer a pushover. They’re the ones doing the pushing around, which makes the rivalry between the three public schools, and Drake, something that fans in Iowa can appreciate and enjoy.
Nothing is impossible for the Purple and the Gold.