CEDAR FALLS — Klint Carlson knows there’s something special about March. As the snow melts and signs of spring begin to surface, it’s an opportunity for basketball players to create lasting memories.
“As a basketball player, it’s the best time of the year,” Northern Iowa’s fifth-year senior said in anticipation of Thursday’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament opener against Evansville. “The way I look at it is it’s a fun time, a great opportunity.”
Carlson is no stranger to big games once the calendar turns from February. As a high school athlete, March included three trips to the state tournament.
The Waverly native erupted for 22 points to finally capture an elusive championship in his seventh state tournament game. Yet, it was as a high school sophomore when Carlson first made his presence known.
Teammate Connor Coleman lofted an alley-oop lob and Carlson dunked with two seconds left in overtime to send his team into the championship game with a one-point win over Norwalk. It was an unforgettable play witnessed by the sixth-grade version of Austin Phyfe.
“That was probably one of my favorite moments watching basketball,” recalled Phyfe, who followed in Carlson’s footsteps from leading W-SR to the state tournament to earning a scholarship at nearby UNI. “Klint, he was always the most athletic kid on the floor. He’d have a lot of dunks. That’s real exciting for middle schoolers, so I’d go crazy.”
Carlson is quick to mention the senior-year state championship as one of his favorite March moments. The other? A half-court, buzzer-beater roommate Paul Jesperson banked to sink Texas in the opening round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
“I didn’t even hit the shot and my adrenaline was still running,” Carlson recalls. “I don’t know how Paul got through the night. His phone kept dying because everybody kept blowing it up. He got texts from people he didn’t even know. It was awesome.”
Carlson’s track record that March wasn’t bad itself. The sophomore bench player — averaging seven points a game — tallied 17 in the MVC tournament championship win over Evansville, added 11 in the NCAA opener against Texas and finished with 17 during a second-round heart-breaker with Texas A&M that ended an eyelash shy of the Sweet 16.
In total, Carlson has surpassed his scoring average in every March game he’s played the past two seasons. Confidence is the word UNI coach Ben Jacobson uses to describe Carlson’s self-belief that he can have positive impact on his team in big games.
“Every once in a while you have guys that like it (March basketball) from the standpoint they know they’re going to play well,” Jacobson said. “They look forward to what some people might look at as pressures in those games. He looks forward to it. I think that’s helped him.”
A versatile, skilled big man with the ability to play at either power forward or center, Carlson’s increased comfort shooting from the perimeter has served as a foundation for many of his best games. He’ll routinely mix in a shot-fake and jumper, shot-fake drive and also post up.
Beyond the physical growth, Carlson and Jacobson take more pride in the leadership skills he’s developed.
When UNI was playing its best basketball in November and December, Carlson was the reliable glue guy. He scored 23 and 24 points in wins over UNLV and Texas-Arlington.
“The thing that had it all tied together was Klint — how hard he was playing, his leadership,” Jacobson pointed out.
As UNI slumped to an 0-5 conference start and realizing the daunting task of having to fight uphill for a third consecutive season, Jacobson admits Carlson’s communication and effort hit a lull.
To the senior’s credit, he recovered.
Carlson has been solid over the past month, in particular the past three games in which he’s shooting 66.7 percent from the field, averaging 15.7 points and seven rebounds.
“He had to work hard to get it back,” Jacobson said. “I don’t think everybody is wired to do that. Sometimes you’ll see guys just kind of let it ride out, and he wasn’t going to let that happen. Between coming in and shooting 500 shots a day and working on his film stuff, he just kept grinding. Even though he got knocked off track, and our team wasn’t playing good, he stayed with it.
“Now these last four weeks his communication has been better, his leadership has been better, he’s playing harder. ... This is the best he’s played this year in conference play.”
With teammates holding each other accountable through the struggles, Carlson draws inspiration from a group that has collectively refused to roll over. More engaged on defense and fluid on offense, the senior feels his team is increasingly locked-in on every possession.
“We got a little momentum behind us,” Carlson added. “We’ve already shown this year that we’re a good team if we play the right way.
“You can’t take a play off now, especially at the end of the year because you’re never going to be able to get it back if you lose the game.”