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BYU, Western Kentucky execute historic comebacks to open an up-for-grabs NCAA tournament

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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BYU's Brock Zylstra reacts after the Cougars pull off the biggest comeback in NCAA tournament history. (AP)

We should have seen it coming, right?

Western Kentucky had shown a knack towards the end of the season for coming back from double-digit deficits and winning in dramatic fashion.

Iona had made a habit throughout the season of letting double-digit leads slip away, turning into agonizing setbacks.

Both happened again on Tuesday in the opening action of the 2012 NCAA tournament, and both instances made history.

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Mississippi Valley State's Kevin Burwell had a tough time swallowing his team's collapse. (AP)

Western Kentucky pulled off the largest comeback in the last five minutes of an NCAA tourney game, digging out of a 16-point hole in the final 4:51 against Mississippi Valley State in Dayton, Ohio. They prevailed, 59-58, and advanced to face top overall seed Kentucky on Thursday evening. Will the Hilltoppers likely get throttled by the Wildcats? Yes. But after Tuesday's comeback, they'll have a lasting memory from the most unlikely of NCAA tournament runs.

And when it appeared that that couldn't be topped, BYU executed the largest overall comeback in NCAA tournament history, by erasing a 25-point deficit in a 78-72 victory over Iona, earning a trip to Louisville to take on Marquette.

It's fair to say that Western Kentucky's effort was the uglier of the two, as both teams shot below 30 percent in an incredibly ugly first half that put MVSU up 23-19 at the break.

Up 53-37 and apparently cruising, the Delta Devils' nightmare then began.

All of a sudden, shots didn't fall. They had trouble even getting the ball past half-court. They couldn't stop Western Kentucky in transition. When they tried to, they fouled.

MVSU only went a little over three minutes without scoring, but it felt like an eternity, and it was clear that the life — and confidence — was draining from the SWAC champs.

Western Kentucky took the lead for good on a T.J. Price 3-point play with 33 seconds remaining. Amidst the celebration afterwards, Hilltoper coach Ray Harper consoled MVSU point guard Kevin Burwell for several moments, making what was this tournament's first lasting image.

Harper had seen that dejection before, as the team he helped resurrect after taking over the reins mid-season also came back from down by double-digits in the Sun Belt tourney quarterfinals against Arkansas-Little Rock, then again in the title game in a thriller with North Texas.

The previous record for the largest comeback in the final five minutes of an NCAA tournament was executed by Illinois, who erased a 15-point deficit against Arizona in the 2005 Elite Eight.

And this one all unfolded in front of none other than Barack Obama himself.

"It's a crazy feeling," said Western Kentucky's Derrick Gordon. "That's the president of the United States coming to watch our game. We wanted to put on a show. Things didn't work our way for the first 35 minutes, but we came away with the W.

[ Related: Dan Wetzel podcast: NCAA tournament favorites could be undone by upstarts ]

"I'm sure he liked what he saw."

Unfortunately, he left between games and missed something that even topped Western Kentucky's comeback.

BYU looked dead in the water before its opening-round game was even 10 minutes old, as Iona put an endless amount of pressure on the Cougars on both ends of the floor. BYU committed turnover after turnover, then couldn't get back fast enough to stop the Gaels' diverse offensive attack.

In the first 16 minutes of the game, Iona scored 55 points, and took a 55-40 lead into the half despite BYU closing the opening stanza on a 9-0 run.

BYU switched to a zone defense and took struggling freshman point guard Matt Carlino out of the action, then ripped off a run that crippled Iona's spirits. Over the course of 10 minutes, a 62-44 lead evaporated into a slim 62-61 edge. And with 2:28 remaining, BYU took its first lead at 71-70.

And never looked back.

It replaced Duke's 22-point comeback against Maryland in the 2001 national semifinals as the greatest charge from behind in tourney history.

BYU's offensive numbers were pretty consistent throughout, but the key was calming down and not firing so quickly on the offensive end against a porous defense, which they did during a first half in which they fell behind by double-digits in a hurry.

Iona's first- and second-half splits, on the other hand, were alarming, to say the least.

Before the break, they were 24 of 41 from the floor with 17 assists and hit 5 of 10 3-point attempts. Star point guard Scott Machado had nine assists, and appeared ready to challenge the NCAA tournament single-game assist record (18) set by UNLV's Mark Wade in 1987.

In the second half, they were 7 of 29 from the floor, 1 of 15 from deep and only recorded two assists — only one came from Machado.

"It's going to be one that we have to live with the rest of our lives," Iona coach Tim Cluess said. "It's a tough one we let get away. No excuses."

Coming in, the popular opinions around the country were that neither Iona nor BYU belonged in the tournament at all. But after Tuesday's action, Iona was the only one left having to do damage control.

[ Related: Video: President Obama takes British prime minister to NCAA tournament game ]

The schizophrenic Gaels are noted for playing an uptempo style that puts far more emphasis on scoring — they led the nation in scoring coming in at 83.3 ppg — than on getting stops on the defensive end. And that, of course, meant that Tuesday's blown lead was not a first. A preseason mid-major darling in the national picture, they also let seemingly commanding double-digit leads slip away in regular-season losses to Siena and Manhattan, while leaving their postseason fate in the selection committee's hands after blowing a second-half lead against Fairfield in the MAAC tournament semifinals.

Like Western Kentucky, BYU now has a major challenge ahead of itself, having to bounce back in 48 hours to take on another uptempo foe.

But whether either of them win doesn't matter at all.

What Tuesday night meant is that we may have only just seen the beginning of the wild and unexpected in what could be the most up-for-grabs NCAA tournament in recent memory.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for RunRebs.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanmgreene.

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