Wild Comebacks Kick Off the NCAA Tournament

March 14th, 2012

For all the talk about how unwatchable the First Four games in Dayton would be, how it's not "part of the tournament', Tuesday turned out to be an exciting and historical day. Both games featured thrilling comebacks, with Western Kentucky and BYU now headed to Louisville for games against Kentucky and Marquette respectively. In attendance for some of the action were President Barack Obama and David Cameron, who as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was the president's guest in Dayton.

They didn't leave Blackburn Arena disappointed either, as the first game was capped by the largest comeback in the firal five minutes of a game in NCAA tournament history. Mississippi Valley State led the Hilltoppers 53-37 with 5:06 remaining following a Cor-J Cox layup, and at that point it seemed as if the Delta Devils would advance to face the alma mater of head coach Sean Woods. But as they've done under head coach Ray Harper, who took over for the fired Ken McDonald in January, the young Hilltoppers refused to quit. 

What ensued was one of the most frenzied five-minute stretches college basketball fans have ever seen, with WKU's pressure forcing five turnovers and holding MVSU to just two field goals over the final 5:06. Both of those field goals came in the final 12 seconds as WKU won 59-58 in front of a stunned crowd.

Derrick Gordon and T.J. Price led WKU offensively with 11 points apiece and the other three starters scored nine points each. But it was their defense that got WKU not only back into the game but on to the next round. 

"We were too much one?on?one," said Harper of his team's play before the comeback. "We weren't making extra passes. Panicked against some of their pressure. But the one thing we never did was quit. And we just kept playing. And I'm just happy that we're going to move on, play another basketball game." 

Kevin Burwell led the Delta Devils with 20 points and Cox combined with William Pugh to score 21 off the bench. As a team MVSU, who makes eight 3-pointers per game (attempting 23), shot 4-of-22 from beyond the arc to go along with 17 turnovers.

But that turnover count was nowhere near WKU's, who found a way to win despite turning the ball over a staggering 27 times. Yes, 27. However just three of those turnovers came in the final 5:06, and that allowed them to come back. 

The second game produced the team more likely to win its next contest, and for a little more than 15 minutes it looked as if Iona was going to be able to call the final score. But Dave Rice made a couple of strategic moves that, in addition to the Cougars playing better on both ends of the floor, won the game for BYU.

The first move was to go to an active 2-3 zone, and with Iona lacking both the height and the player necessary to take advantage of the high post area they struggled. 

The Gaels would go scoreless the final four and a half minutes of the first half, taking a 55-40 lead into the half that was nowhere near as safe as it appeared. The other move of Rose's that paid off was to go with Craig Cusick and Damarcus Harrison for much of the second half in the backcourt.

Matt Carlino seemed convinced that he had to match Scott Machado play for play in the first half and the end result was a 25-point deficit. With Cusick and Harrison in the game both Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock got better looks (combining for 41 points and 20 rebounds; 15 by Davies) and Harrison finished with 12 points. 

"I told you all along he's a really good player and I think his confidence really grew tonight," said Rose of Harrison, who according to the coach had a good week of preparation as well. "But he stepped up in a really big?time atmosphere and had a great game, and a lot of that has to do with preparation." 

Iona managed to score just 17 points in the second half, with the looks from three that came so easy in the first half non-existent (1-of-18 in the second half). The 25-point comeback is the largest in NCAA tournament history, and the key now will be for the Cougars to get as much rest as they can in advance of Thursday afternoon's game against Marquette.

With the Golden Eagles lacking size in the paint both Davies and Hartsock can make some things happen. But even with the play of guys such as Cusick, Harrison and Brock Zylstra, BYU needs a better Matt Carlino in order to advance. And after tonight, they're well aware of the fact that anything can happen. 

Player of the Night: BYU forward Brandon Davies (18 points, 15 rebounds)

Shocking Stat: Western Kentucky turned the ball over 27 times and still won. 

Coaching Move of the Night: Dave Rose switching to a zone defense to slow down Iona's offensive attack.