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BYU mounts biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history, downs Iona 78-72

Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

After getting absolutely worked by a quicker, more poised Iona team in the first half, BYU used patient offense and lockdown defense to put together the biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history. The Cougars overcame a 25-point deficit to beat Iona 78-72 in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament in Dayton, Ohio.

Noah Hartsock, ever faithful to his task like his prophet namesake, was yet again the anchor he has been all year for BYU. The Machine knocked down a three-point jumper with 2:28 to give BYU a 71-70 lead, its first lead of the game, and one the Cougars would not give it up. BYU advances to the second round on Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky.

The first half was an absolute massacre. It wasn't a secret that Iona was quick and loved to run, but BYU still seemed overwhelmed, surprised, and completely outmatched. Between turnovers and poor shot selection, BYU set the table for Scott Machado to carve up the Cougars on the fast break. The nation's assist leader posted 9 assists in the first half. When Iona wasn't doing it on the break, it was knocking down what seemed like every shot. The Gael's opened the game shooting a blistering 24-35 from the field and held a 49-24 lead with 6:12 left in the first half.

BYU was able to put in a few buckets to close the first half, but still went to the locker room down 55-40.

The second half would be a different story -- at least, when Craig Cusick came to calm the storm. A struggling Matt Carlino was put on the bench and Cusick slowed BYU down enough to start getting good looks on offense. Iona's Mike Glover put home a dunk with 17:16 left to give the Gaels a 62-44 lead. If you can do math, you know that Iona would score just 10 points over the final 17:16 of the game.

The lineup of Cusick, Damarcus Harrison, Brock Zylstra, Noah Hartsock, and Brandon Davies would play for nearly 10 minutes, taking over after that dunk of Glovers. Hartsock and Davies played stifling defense and anchored the zone that held Iona scoreless for over 9 minutes. The same team that started the game 24-35 from the field would end it going 7-35.

Meanwhile on offense, that same crew picked apart the Iona zone, patiently working the ball into the post. Hartsock and Davies did a masterful job of taking shots that were given, but kicking back out to the wing when double- or triple-teamed. Others filled around and took shots only when open. It was a drastic change from the first half in which any Cougar put up the first shot even remotely available.

You can't say enough about Damarcus Harrison, either. He saw such few minutes down the home stretch of the season, but when called upon, the true freshman showed poise beyond his years, teaming with Cusick to calm the team down both offensively and defensively. Harrison finished with 12 points and three rebounds in 21 minutes.

After doing damage in the paint to pull within 10, Davies kicked out to an open Zylstra who knocked down a three to bring the deficit to single digits. After a series of Hartsock scores brought BYU within one, Jermel Jenkins hit a tough three to end Iona's nine-minute scoring drought and put them up 65-61. But Harrison answered the call and buried a corner three on the next possession to cut it back to one.

Hartsock would score the next seven points to give BYU the 71-70 lead. He scored 23 points on 10-14 shooting and played a whopping 38 minutes on his ailing leg. Davies would add 18 points and 15 rebounds, and the two combined to block four shots.

The comeback eclipses the previous record of 22 points, overcome when Duke beat Maryland in the 2001 Final Four.

Amazingly, with all the impact Cusick had on the game, he finished with zero points. But he dished eight assists, grabbed five rebounds, and had two steals in 26 minutes of excellent work.

Scott Machado led all Iona scorers with 15, followed by Jenkins with 13 and Glover with 12. Machado posted nine assists and no turnovers in the first half, but one assist and five turnovers in the second.

It was an incredible dichotomy for us as fans, and I'm sure players and coaches, too. The first half couldn't have been more frustrating. I almost gave up on the game, and many fans did. And I don't blame them. It felt like the same game we saw twice against Saint Mary's and once at Gonzaga -- except it was happening much more quickly and more gruesomely than ever.

To BYU's credit -- Dave Rose, Cusick, Harrison, Hartsock, whoever was involved in it -- the Cougars hit the reset button, regained composure, and imposed their will on Iona.

Now it's on to the next round -- and it definitely doesn't get easier. BYU advances to play 3-seeded Marquette (25-7) on Thursday at 12:45 pm MT in Louisville. The Golden Eagles finished second in the Big East regular season.

(If you went to bed, here's a look at the post-game party we had.)