Northern Iowa might have just allowed the most improbable comeback in basketball history. The Panthers led Texas A&M 69-57 with 35 seconds left in regulation. Up 12 with just about half a minute remaining, there was virtually no way to avoid winning.
But the Aggies put on a vicious full-court press. Suddenly, the Panthers couldn't even inbound the ball without instantly turning it over, often giving A&M the ball mere feet from the hoop. They committed four turnovers, none of them past the halfcourt line, and the Aggies managed five twos, a three, and a free throw to complete a 14-2 run and send it to overtime.
The NCAA says this was the biggest final-minute comeback of all time, with the previous record belonging to a February 2005 game when San Diego State came back from 11 down with 59 seconds to go. A&M managed one more point in 24 fewer seconds.
The Aggies had to score six baskets in just about one shot clock's worth of time. That would be hard to do even if the Panthers didn't have the opportunity to take time off the clock themselves. But UNI's failed attempts at beating Texas A&M's press virtually maximized the Aggies' ability to score points in the time remaining.
In a matter of a few seconds, the best feel-good story of March crumpled, instantly turning into one of the most brutal NCAA eliminations ever. Our hearts are with the players of the Northern Iowa Panthers, who will be haunted forever by the night they made the impossible possible.
31 SECONDS LEFT. 69-59
Texas A&M's Admon Gilder has just gotten an offensive rebound and hit a layup to cut the lead to 69-59. UNI can't get the ball in bounds, and calls timeout. This is the play after the timeout:
The Panthers inbound to Jeremy Morgan near mid-court, but he can't really corral the ball while keeping his balance. Gilder steals it, who passes to Danuel House, who scores.
25 SECONDS LEFT. 69-61.
UNI successfully inbounds to Paul Jesperson, but he's stuck along the baseline and double-teamed. That timeout the Panthers just called was their last, so he has no options. He chooses to jump out of bounds while attempting to throw the ball back off a defender in hopes it will ricochet out of bounds.
He misses the defender completely, meaning the ball bounces nicely to Jalen Jones, who is a foot from the basket and completely undefended.
21 SECONDS LEFT. 69-63.
Wyatt Lohaus just throws the ball to nobody.
No time comes off the clock. Danuel House hits a three within a second of A&M's inbounds pass.
19 SECONDS LEFT. 69-66.
The Panthers actually run a good inbounds play! They find Klint Carlson over the top, and he gets a breakaway dunk.
Although it's hard to think about in the moment, UNI would've probably been better off if Carlson just ran to the corner to stall for time. It would've taken a few extra seconds off the clock, and his free throws would've allowed UNI's defense to regroup.
Instead, A&M quickly inbounds before UNI's defense is set. They quickly get the ball the other way and Alex Caruso hits a layup AND gets fouled and hit the free throw. The only successful play the Panthers had actually cost them a point.
8 SECONDS LEFT. 71-69.
The ball was inbounded to Wes Washpun, the team's senior star point guard, the man who should have the ball in his hands. But like Jesperson 13 seconds ago, he too gets trapped along the baseline. And like Jesperson, he too chooses to throw the ball back inbounds. And like Jesperson, he fails:
Like Jesperson, Washpun's throw misses its target. (A&M must practice getting out of the way of desperate ricochet attempts.) The ball bounces to Gilder, and he puts it in.
ZERO SECONDS LEFT. 71-71. OVERTIME.
The Panthers could have won in overtime, but they did not, choosing to launch a 45-footer with five seconds on the game clock. And they fell in double overtime, completing perhaps the most ridiculous collapse of all time.
Various win probability calculators attempted to explain this situation. Depending on who you ask, UNI had between a 99.99 and 100 percent chance at victory.
Here it is. 99.99%. This is an all-time sports collapse. Bar none. pic.twitter.com/A3f1iUlkXW— numberFire (@numberFire) March 21, 2016
The FiveThirtyEight graph on A&M-UNI cannot be RT’d enough. pic.twitter.com/nCK8ZUIEr5— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) March 21, 2016
The Panthers' failure broke math.
First of all, we need to credit the Aggies. Facing such preposterous odds, nobody would've blamed them if they just eased up and let UNI run the clock out with 30 seconds to go.
Instead, they played some of the most vicious, airtight full-court defense imaginable. They executed in every way they needed to execute. They suffocated the Panthers until they made bad decisions. They made every shot they needed to make, some dunks, some layups, some threes. They even managed to draw contact on a play where contact wasn't really necessary to get a free throw. They played perfectly for 40 seconds.
But they were helped out by UNI's phenomenally poor execution and decision-making. Each time they were given the opportunity, the Panthers made the worst play possible.
If Northern Iowa had simply inbounded the ball, then chucked it as far as they could towards the other end of the court and out of bounds, they likely would have won in regulation. Each throw would've taken three or four seconds off the clock. That would've left the Aggies about 20 seconds to go the length of the floor five times against a fully set-up defense. They probably wouldn't have been able to pull that off.
Instead, UNI made the mistake of actually trying. And when they tried, they failed. Their inbounds passes were almost all into corners and baselines, allowing A&M to use the out-of-bounds line as an extra defender. The team's failed attempts at getting out of these scenarios generally took very little time off the clock and left Texas A&M with the ball near the hoop against a disorganized, or, in some cases, completely nonexistent defense. UNI's attempts at getting out of bad scenarios often allowed the Aggies to score more quickly and easily than if they actually had to create offense for themselves.
Northern Iowa had been on something of an improbable run. After starting the season 10-11, they needed to win the MVC tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. So they won the MVC tournament on a bouncy buzzer-beater, earning the league's auto-bid. Then in the tournament's first round, they did something less probable, hitting a half-court buzzer-beater to beat Texas. They were a feel-good story, the banner-carrier for everything great about March Madness.
But the good things UNI did were mere improbable things. This was supposedly impossible. But the Panthers proved anything is possible, in the most devastating way they possibly could.
* * *
NCAA Cinderella: Northern Iowa was cruising after a big turnaround this year
Be sure to subscribe to SB Nation's YouTube channel for highlight videos, features, analysis and more