College basketball has existed for a long time.
The first recorded game between two colleges occurred in Minnesota, in fact, when Hamline University squared off against Minnesota A&M — which later folded into the University of Minnesota — on February 9, 1895.
On Sunday night, basketball fans saw something that hadn’t happened in all those 121 years of college hoops: a team overcoming a 12-point deficit with 35 seconds to win — or a team blowing a 12-point lead with 35 seconds left to lose, depending on whether you want to be glass-half-full or glass-half-empty about it.
To recap for those who somehow missed it: No. 11 seed Northern Iowa led No. 3 seed Texas A&M 69-57 with 35 seconds left in their Round of 32 game Sunday night.
The game was over; the Panthers possessed an insurmountable lead — literally, according to some win-probability calculators, which either set Northern Iowa’s chances of victory at 99.99 or 100 percent.
But the improbable — the impossible, the unfathomable, the inconceivable, the unimaginable, choose your superlative — somehow happened, as Texas A&M deployed a swarming full-court press to force four turnovers and scored at will to manage to tie the game 71-71 and send it to overtime before winning 92-88 in double OT.
The fact that Northern Iowa still had to endure two overtimes after such a soul-crushing collapse somehow made the loss more difficult — a protracted, painful death instead of the swift mercy of losing in regulation.
Everything about the loss beggared belief: how does one team seemingly lose the ability to inbound the ball or make rational decisions? How does one team allow its opposition to march to the basket unimpeded, possession after possession, only to inexplicably foul a player as he attempts a layup? How does Northern Iowa star point guard Wes Washpun not simply heave the ball high in the air and across half court to run out the clock instead of accidentally turning it over?
Watching the highlights two days later, I still can’t believe it happened.
The stat heads at FiveThirtyEight wrote a handy breakdown of all the ways the Panthers’ collapse was historic and basically bonkers.
And yet, watching the highlights and reading the recaps, I still have a hard time conceptualizing how a team can fall apart so utterly so quickly.
While watching Sunday night, I also wondered what it must have been like to watch college basketball’s most improbable comeback ever as a basketball coach.
So I asked one.
‘Deserved to be shocked’
I called up Litchfield High School head boys coach John Carlson, who has compiled a 452-307 record in his 28-year Hall of Fame coaching career, to get his take on Northern Iowa’s historical collapse.
“Honestly, when they were up 12 there was no thought in my mind that they could ever lose that game,” Carlson said. “In fact, I had picked them to win that game so I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m doing pretty well to pick them in that pool.’”
As a coach, it was natural for Carlson to empathize with Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson, who Carlson knows from Jacobson’s days as a University of North Dakota assistant recruiting Carlson’s son Alex.
“I know the coach, he’s a wonderful, wonderful man,” Carlson said. “And for him to see his team just fold at the end like that. … You hate to see anybody go though that.”
Carlson was also quick to commend the Aggies’ stifling defense and how completely they shut down the Panthers with their press.
“Boy, they were good at trapping and not fouling,” he said. “You could tell that they had done that before.”
Texas A&M’s ability to exert pressure and force turnovers without fouling was the key to the team’s comeback — and also flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which is to foul immediately and hope that your team can win the point trade-off that takes over every basketball end-game scenario.
Instead, the Aggies trusted that their superior size, athleticism and defensive vigor would win out — and it did.
“They never fouled, and most teams would foul. They were really, really good at trapping,” Carlson said. “… They forced the ball to be entered into the corners, so really you’re not double-teamed, you’re quadruple-teamed.”
Carlson said that he could tell just watching the game that the Panthers were in trouble by the second overtime period.
“They were in shock,” he said. “They deserved to be shocked.”
A game of extremes
The variance is so much greater in college basketball, particularly under the bright lights of the NCAA tournament.
I mentioned to Carlson that a collapse like that simply wouldn’t happen in the NBA; the players are too skilled, experienced and comfortable in intense situations.
But the lower quality of college hoops can ironically make it more pleasurable and compelling.
There are simply more possibilities and potential outcomes, more chances at seeing something irrational and awesome — in its original, “filled with awe” sense — like we did Sunday night.
“It’s a lot more fun to watch,” Carlson said. “That’s what makes March Madness so cool.”
Carlson noted that Northern Iowa had only advanced to the second round because of an improbable, buzzer-beating half-court heave from Paul Jesperson to give the Panthers a 75-72 win over No. 6 Texas.
In just two games, Northern Iowa had experienced both the ecstasy and the agony of March Madness — and played a starring role in the most historic collapse in the 121-year history of college basketball.
Carlson summed up what most of were thinking as we stared in disbelief, shouting at our televisions.
“It was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’” he said. “It was an unbelievable finish.”