As Nevada staged one of the most improbable comebacks in college basketball history at New Mexico late Saturday night, Eric Musselman’s sons were at home playing video games.
Michael and Matthew Musselman had turned the game off midway through the second half with their dad’s team hopelessly behind.
“Some of their friends started texting them after we tied it up,” Eric Musselman said by phone Sunday morning. “All of a sudden their phones went pop-pop-pop, and they turned it back on with three minutes left in overtime.”
What Musselman’s sons missed was a rally so unfathomable that many of the fans at WisePies Arena had already left their seats by the time it began. The Wolf Pack won 105-104 in overtime despite trailing by 25 with 11 minutes left in regulation, by 19 with four minutes to go and by 14 with just over a minute remaining.
Sophomore forward Jordan Caroline sank a go-ahead pull-up 3-pointer from the left wing with 2.9 seconds left in overtime to ensure Nevada’s furious comeback wouldn’t go to waste. Caroline’s game winner gave the Wolf Pack their first lead since the opening three minutes of the first half.
“I’ve coached in college, in the NBA, internationally, and I’ve never seen anything like that,” Musselman said. “The biggest benefit of it is now our guys know that we can come back from any deficit. I’m 52, and it’s a lesson for me that anything is possible in sports.”
Nevada’s comeback didn’t begin to build momentum until even Musselman had lost hope. He pulled leading scorer Marcus Marshall with a few minutes left in the game, hoping to get the senior guard some extra rest rather than risk injury in a game that already appeared to be decided.
Musselman’s outlook hadn’t changed as New Mexico’s Jalen Harris dribbled up court with a 14-point lead and 70 seconds to play. Only after Caroline poked the ball away from behind and fed walk-on Charlie Tooley for a transition 3-pointer did Musselman see enough glimmer of hope to summon Marshall from the bench and send him back into the game.
“He looked at two of the managers behind the bench and said, ‘Why’s he putting me back in?'” Musselman said with a chuckle.
Musselman’s rationale was simple. Not only is Marshall a 40.7 percent shooter from behind the arc this season, he’s also the team’s best late-game shooter. Marshall specializes in off-balance, wrong-footed shots like the last-second runner he beat Washington with earlier this season.
Validation for reinserting Marshall arrived quickly as Nevada hit five more threes during the final minute, each more difficult than the next. Four came from Marshall including a step-back 3-pointer from NBA range and a pair of heavily contested banked-in threes from even further back.
It was the second of Marshall’s bank shots that forced overtime. After New Mexico’s Sam Logwood clanked a pair of free throws with the Lobos up three and 16.6 seconds to play, Marshall took a dribble handoff well behind the arc on the left wing, pulled up and stunned what remained of the red-clad New Mexico crowd at the Pit.
“He’s as good a late-game shot maker as I’ve ever been around including NBA players,” Musselman said. “He takes the shots where you go, ‘Oh no … Yes!'”
Nevada trailed New Mexico 90-76 with just over a minute left last night. What happened next was one of the most insane comebacks you'll see. pic.twitter.com/PEqe0wmbqK
— March Madness 2017 (@Madness2017) January 8, 2017
The 11-point deficit Nevada erased in less than 60 seconds was the second biggest final-minute comeback in college basketball history. Texas A&M set the record during the second round of the NCAA tournament last March when it stormed back from 12 points down to stun Northern Iowa.
Whereas it was Northern Iowa turnovers that fueled Texas A&M’s rally, it was missed foul shots by New Mexico that paved the way for Nevada’s. The Lobos missed 9 of 14 free throws in the final three minutes, a problem exacerbated by the fact that several of their top foul shooters were sidelined by injury.
To win the game in overtime, Nevada actually had to stage another comeback. New Mexico scored seven of the first nine points in overtime and still led by two when Musselman called timeout to prepare for their final possession.
Even though Caroline had scored 42 points and Marshall had gotten hot late in regulation, freshman point guard Devearl Ramsey was the primary option in the play that Musselman drew up in the huddle. Musselman wanted Ramsey to dribble up court and either try to tie the game with a layup or kick to a shooter for an open look.
“When we called the last timeout and diagrammed the play, Jordan was furious he wasn’t the first option,” Musselman said. “He kept screaming, ‘I want the ball, I want the ball.'”
Fortunately for Nevada it worked out that way anyway. New Mexico double teamed Ramsey to prevent him from catching the inbound pass, the ball went to Caroline instead and the athletic combo forward did not waste his chance.
Caroline’s quickness makes him a difficult matchup for opposing power forwards, and it showed in the way that New Mexico’s Tim Williams backed off him to take away the drive, giving him space to get off a clean look. The Nevada sophomore finished with a career-high 45 points on 12 of 21 shooting from inside the arc and 5 of 8 shooting from behind it.
The heroics of Marshall and Caroline kept Nevada (14-3, 3-1) within a game of first-place Boise State in the Mountain West standings. This was an especially important road win too since New Mexico (9-7, 2-2) is also projected to contend for the league title.
But the league standings weren’t what mattered to either team when the final buzzer sounded.
For New Mexico, this was a harsh lesson not to let up too soon. For Nevada, it was proof that miracles are possible when you never give up. And for the Musselman family, it was a reminder never to turn the TV off too early.
“I called my sons after the game, and they were screaming and going crazy,” Musselman said with a laugh. “They were so mad they turned it off too soon.”
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