DAYTON, Ohio — Trailing by a seemingly insurmountable 25 points in the first half to Iona Tuesday night, it looked like BYU was on the verge of an early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
But the Cougars staged a furious rally — and recorded the largest comeback in NCAA Tournament history — to knock off the Gaels, 78-72, in a first-round game Tuesday night at the University of Dayton Arena.
"I don't think that any one of us, especially our coaching staff or our players, doubted the fact that we could chip into that lead," said coach Dave Rose. "When we got thing down to (seven points), the look in our players' eyes at that time was 'Game on. We got a chance here.' And we were able to finish it off."
With the victory, No. 14 seeded BYU advances to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars face No. 3 Marquette Thursday (12:45 p.m., MT, CBS) in Louisville in the West Region.
Before Tuesday, the biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history took place in 2001, when Duke overcame a 22-point deficit to Maryland, in the Final Four.
BYU, which hadn't played in 10 days, turned in an abysmal start Tuesday, and fell behind 55-31, with four minutes remaining in the first half.
Then the Cougars made defensive adjustments, changed the pace of the game, and hit shots. Amazingly, BYU outscored Iona 47-17 the rest of the way.
"It was tough for us early," said BYU coach Dave Rose. "But our guys fought.. We fought hard. We fought all game long. And we got a big win. And I'm really happy for our players ... We had to make some real adjustments defensively in those first 15 minutes and it didn't pay off until later. We started sending three (players) back to try to slow down their (fast) break. But (Iona's) guards are really good. They're fast."
Senior Noah Hartsock scored 23 points, including 17 in the second half. Brandon Davies recorded a double-double with 18 points and 15 rebounds.
A 3-pointer by Hartsock gave BYU its first lead, 71-70, with a little more than two minutes remaining.
"It's part of March Madness. It's a team that's worked hard all year," Hartsock said. "Never given up on anyone. And we just came out here and we got down early but we were just trying to make adjustments."
One of the keys in Iona's collapse was its shooting. The Gaels shot 58 percent in the first half, but just 23 percent in the second.
The Cougars' zone defense tightened up and prevented Iona from scoring in bunches.
"I give BYU all the credit for the comeback they made. They made shots, they made plays," said Iona coach Tim Cluess. "We had opportunities, but we were 1-for-15 on 3's in the second half. You're not going to beat anyone that way. We've had a couple of these losses this year like that and it really stems from the fact that when we don't make shots, we're not the same type of team. We're a small team. They went inside, did a great job of getting it inside."
"They were pressuring the ball," said Iona guard Scott Machado. "They were making it hard to get in the lane and make passes into the interior."
President Barack Obama attended the first game Tuesday, and watched Western Kentucky come back from a 16-point second half deficit.
But he missed the Cougars' rally, and he missed BYU making NCAA Tournament history.
"I started looking around and didn't see him," Hartsock said of Obama. "I'm sure he had some important things to take care of."
After digging a big hole in the first half, the Cougars held Iona scoreless through the final four minutes of the period and outscoring the Gaels, 9-0 going into halftime. And it swung the momentum in BYU's favor as the Cougars cut the deficit to 15, 55-40, at halftime,
"I think that gave us a lot of confidence, making a little run there, and we talked about it at halftime," Hartsock said. "Coach Rose was talking about how that 15-point lead wasn't safe — either we were up 15 or they were up 15, that the style of the game that was being playing, that a comeback could happen. We just focused on chipping it down, trying to get it to 12, and trying to get it at 10 at the 12-minute mark and get it to six points. And we just kept doing that little by little going on runs. And it really helped with our confidence and the momentum swing."
BYU improved to 26-8 while Iona finished its season 25-8.
Cougars on the air
No. 14 BYU (25-8) vs. No. 3 Marquette (25-7)
Thursday 12:45 p.m., MT
KFC Yum Center, Louisville, Ky.
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM