DAYTON, Ohio — BYU fans lined the rail at the exit floor tunnel and screamed at Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies at the Dayton Arena on Tuesday night.
You'd have thought they were rock stars.
They kind of were.
It was a fitting scene for a most remarkable 78-72 comeback victory by the Cougars over an Iona College team that had sliced and diced the Cougars for the first 20 minutes here, with most observers thinking BYU was dead.
BYU's win is the largest comeback victory in an NCAA Tournament game in the event's history.
"The biggest thing," said BYU coach Dave Rose, "is this team has heart. They fight. They fought all year long."
For the first time this season, the Cougars came from a halftime deficit and won. BYU entered the game 0-7 when trailing at half. Perhaps this is what made this win even more remarkable.
"This is BYU's basketball version of the football team's win over SMU in 1980," said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. "Now BYUtv has two basketball highlights to run, the drive by Danny Ainge against Notre Dame and this one."
Repeating even greater dramatics than Western Kentucky's stunning 59-58 comeback over Mississippi Valley State in the first game here (16 points), the Cougars trailed by 25 with six minutes to play in the first half and outscored Iona 38-17 in the second half.
Davies and Hartsock took the Cougars on their shoulders and marched BYU over and past Iona with machine-like precision. Hartsock led BYU with 23 and Davies added 18 points and 15 boards.
Two halves of basketball couldn't have been more opposite for Rose's squad, who looked awful the first 20 minutes. Iona who looked like supermen, then in the second stanza they looked like guys with lead weights around their ankles.
They led 55-40 at half and lost by six.
The team from New York put on a clinic in fast-break basketball early and showed why they are the nation's leading scoring team.
It was like the Harlem Globetrotters taking on the Washington Generals. Iona moved the ball as if to music, scoring outside, inside, whatever side, almost at will.
It looked like five Usain Bolts playing against five Forrest Gumps.
But this wasn't a sprint, and in the end, the Cougars' plodding strength and superior size just took over.
Iona came out smoking from the 3-point line and took Cougar defenders off the dribble like they were cardboard cutouts.
They got BYU caught up in a harried mindset with a press and the Cougars struggled to even run offensive sets for the first 14 minutes. Instead, Cougar shooters tried to be Iona in slow motion and failed miserably.
After 16 minutes, Iona led 55-31. The Gaels were shooting 68 percent from the field, 71 percent (5-for-7) from the 3-point line and star point guard Scott Machado, the nation's assist leader with just under 10 a game, already had nine.
BYU ended the first half on a 9-0 run to trail 55-40 before intermission.
The Cougars had 13 turnovers at half. At that stage of the game Iona's starters were on fire. Mike Glover made 5-for-8, Randy Dezouvre was 4-for-6, Lamont Jones 3-for-8, Machado 3-for-3 and Sean Armand 4-for-4.
Rose tried to get the Cougars to attack Iona with Davies and Hartsock but players on the floor failed to find a rhythm, panicked and got down quick.
But shuffling in freshmen DeMarcus Harrison and Anson Winder at key times with Craig Cusick taking over the point for freshman Matt Carlino, Rose saw his team whittle things back to a doable project in the final 10 minutes.
Iona looked spent, tired and unable to answer BYU's charge. It was as if their remarkable 55-point first half cost them everything they had in the tank and the Cougars were ready to pounce and eat.
BYU took its first lead of the game 71-70 at the 2:18 mark on a 3-point basket by Hartsock. The Cougars never looked back.
"I give BYU all the credit for the comeback they made," said Iona coach Tim Cluess.
"They made shots, they made plays. We had opportunities, but I think we were 1-for-15 on 3s in the second half. You're not going to beat anyone that way."6 comments on this story
Cluess said his squad just couldn't make shots in crunch time.
"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 and kicking it back out.
"So I give them a lot of credit. We weren't good enough in the second half to withstand that comeback."
The Cougar now face No. 3 seed Marquette in Louisville on Thursday.
They're human, it will take time to get over this one.