As the stands began emptying behind him Sunday night in Chesapeake Energy Arena, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy began wrapping his mind around the idea that a special season was ticking down to a disappointing conclusion.
A&M trailed by 12 points with 44 seconds remaining in its second-round game of the NCAA basketball tournament against Northern Iowa. But four forced turnovers by the Aggies defense, combined with six baskets and a free throw by A&M, managed to tie matters before the end of regulation and forced the contest into overtime.
A&M eventually prevailed 92-88 in a double-overtime thriller that left Kennedy at a loss for words after his team sealed a Sweet 16 berth with one of the most heart-stopping comebacks in NCAA tournament history.
I’ve never been a part of a game like that. Never seen one. I mean, come on, man.
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy
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“I’ve never been a part of a game like that. Never seen one,” Kennedy said. “I mean, come on, man.”
Kennedy acknowledged that, in the wake of his team’s furious comeback, he still wasn’t sure exactly what transpired. But he knew the Aggies (28-8) beat long odds to wind up in Thursday’s 6:37 p.m. matchup against Oklahoma (27-7) in the Sweet 16 round of the West Region in Anaheim, Calif.
“I don’t know what Vegas’ odds are on a situation like that,” Kennedy said, reflecting on the fact that A&M still trailed by a 69-61 margin with 25 seconds remaining and was down by five, 71-66, with 17 seconds to play. “But people know about my faith and all I can do is say, ‘To God be the glory.’ I’m just thankful for this moment.”
It is a moment and a comeback that no one in the A&M locker room will forget anytime soon. Well after midnight on Monday morning, a large group of fans greeted the Aggies upon their return to Reed Arena in College Station. But the magic happened a few hours earlier in Oklahoma City.
Guard Alex Caruso, a senior who scored a team-high 25 points, called it the “craziest game I’ve been a part of ... I went from career being over to being in the Sweet 16 in about 30 minutes. So I am going through a ton of emotion.”
Forward Jalen Jones, who contributed 16 points, said he was “still just shocked” and “at a loss for words” even after the NCAA’s mandatory cooling off period for postgame interviews.
“It was one of the best victories of my life,” said Jones, a senior who began his college career at SMU. “We kept fighting and the coaching staff kept telling us to fight. Our bench kept backing us up.”
But hope seemed lost as A&M fans began filing toward the exits in droves in the final minute, only to make a U-turn and reclaim their seats soon after the momentum turned when the Aggies applied a full-court press and UNI players began struggling to break it. A&M completed its rally without committing a foul. The team made 6 of 7 shots from the field in the final minute after making only 6 of 27 field goals in the first half.
A chronological breakdown of A&M’s 14-2 rally to force overtime from a 69-57 deficit included:
▪ Layup by Admon Gilder with 33 seconds remaining.
▪ Turnover by UNI’s Jeremy Morgan, followed by a Danuel House layup with 25 seconds remaining.
▪ Steal by Jones from UNI’s Paul Jesperson, followed by a Jones dunk with 22 seconds remaining.
▪ Turnover by UNI’s Wyatt Lohaus, followed by a House 3-pointer with 21 seconds remaining.
▪ UNI basket by Klint Karlson, followed by Carsuo’s driving layup and free throw to complete a three-point play with 11 seconds remaining.
▪ Steal by Gilder from UNI’s Wes Washpun, followed by Gilder’s tying layup with 2 seconds remaining. That knotted the game at 71-71 and forced overtime. It also swung the momentum heavily in A&M’s direction.
A&M finally delivered the knockout blow in the second overtime, outscoring UNI 9-5 in that stretch to secure the victory. House, the team’s leading scorer, did not make a field goal until his layup with 25 seconds remaining in regulation. He credited younger teammates with encouraging the guys on the floor during the fateful final minute that forced overtime.
It was one of the best victories of my life. We kept fighting and the coaching staff kept telling us to fight. Our bench kept backing us up.
Texas A&M forward Jalen Jones
“Coming back in the huddle and seeing the freshmen’s faces … they kept telling us, encouraging us, to come on,” House said. “They kept telling us, ‘We’ve still got a lot of time left.’ Just for them not to give up and us to get a victory is huge. I mean, we just didn’t want to go home.”
For House, who missed his first nine shots from the field, the offensive opportunities began flowing after Washpun fouled out in the first minute of the first overtime. Limited to 11 points in regulation, House added 11 more in the two overtimes to fuel the Aggies’ decisive surge.
“Washpun did a good job of smothering me,” House said. “When he fouled out, I could take it to another gear. It opened up the lanes a little bit more and I was able to find my flow.”
Eventually, that flow carried A&M all the way to a Sweet 16 berth that seemed all but lost in the final minute of regulation.
“We were just trying to make one play and, after that one is done, try to make another,” Caruso said. “This is a testament to this team and the heart that we have and the fight that we show.”
Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma
6:37 p.m., Thursday, TBS