Label it a “play-in” game, if you insist.
The NCAA Tournament record book won’t discriminate against a first-round contest, crediting BYU with the biggest comeback ever — topping a Final Four game.
And that’s fair, because even after the where, when and whom of the Cougars’ epic rally become almost irrelevant, the memory of what BYU did Tuesday at Dayton, Ohio, will have lasting impact.
The Cougars came from 25 points down to beat Iona 78-72, advancing into the tournament’s traditional round of 64 teams Thursday against No. 3 seed Marquette in a West Region game at Louisville, Ky.
Iona coach Tim Cluess described Tuesday’s outcome as “one that we have to live with the rest of our lives,” and the same is true for BYU, in a much happier way.
The game was telecast by truTV, which markets itself as “television’s destination for real-life stories” with the theme of “Not reality. Actuality.”
This seemingly unreal sequence of events actually happened, and will remain indelible for everybody involved, long after the Cougars exit this tournament — whether that’s Thursday or sometime afterward. That’s especially true for BYU senior forward Noah Hartsock, who had to miss his Marriott Center farewell last month because of an injury; junior center Brandon Davies, who missed the NCAA Tournament last March because of a school-imposed suspension; and freshman guard Damarcus Harrison, who missed five games this season via coach’s decision.
They were at the forefront of the turnaround, which is best chronicled by reviewing some checkpoints:
• With 6:12 remaining in the first half, Iona went ahead 49-24. BYU outscored the Gaels 54-23 the rest of the way.
• Iona’s 55th point of the game came after 15 minutes, 26 seconds. In the final 24:34, the Gaels scored 17 points.
• Even after their halftime lead dipped to 15 points, the Gaels led 62-44 with 17:16 remaining. BYU closed with a 34-10 run — including 17-0 at one stage, then 14-2 in the last five minutes.
As coach Dave Rose observed, it was not a case of BYU suddenly getting hot. Sustaining the rally required a phenomenal defensive effort, possession after possession, against the country’s highest-scoring team. For BYU, scoring 78 points was not nearly as impressive as holding Iona to 72 - particularly considering that as of late in the first half, the Gaels were on a 142-point pace.
At some point, BYU became destined to win this game. The best evidence came just inside the five-minute mark, with Iona leading 70-64. BYU’s Brock Zylstra missed a 3-pointer, then Iona’s Lamont Jones rebounded the ball and passed ahead to a streaking Randy Dezouvre, who missed a layup amid some pressure from BYU’s Craig Cusick.
Eventually, Hartsock’s 3-pointer from the right corner, part of his 23-point game, gave the Cougars their first lead. It was a vintage performance from Hartsock, who blossomed as a senior. Davies also delivered, with 18 points and 15 rebounds, responding to Rose’s advice. After Davies’ long drive resulted in a charging foul late in the first half, Rose talked to him. The coach recounted his words this way: “He waited for such a long time and worked so hard to be in this situation, let’s at least play like you play and make the plays you make, and I think he settled down from there.”
Then there was Harrison, the freshman who had played only 236 minutes — the equivalent of six full games — all season, before getting 21 minutes and scoring 12 points. During the Cougars’ full week of practice between the West Coast Conference tournament and Selection Sunday, Harrison was “one of the best players,” Rose said.
That performance in Provo enabled Harrison to become a big part of history in Dayton.
BYU’s rally was not even as dramatic as the preceding First Four game Tuesday, in which Western Kentucky trailed Mississippi Valley State by 16 points in the last five minutes before winning. But in terms of the largest deficit overcome in tournament history, the Cougars topped Duke’s comeback from 22 points down in 2001.
So this First Four recovery was bigger than that Final Four rally.