OKLAHOMA CITY — Northern Iowa appeared all but ready to book its plane tickets to California for next week’s Sweet 16.
That was before Texas A&M put together the biggest last-minute comeback in NCAA Division I history.
Led by Alex Caruso’s 25 points and 22 more from Danuel House in the second half and overtimes, the third-seeded Aggies (28-8) rallied from 12 points down with 44 seconds remaining in regulation — 10 down with less than 30 seconds — to defeat the Panthers 92-88 in double overtime on Sunday night.
“Craziest game I’ve been a part of from beginning to end,” Caruso said. “Just an amazing game. This is what March is about.”
The previous NCAA record for coming back from a deficit in the last minute was 11 points, done by UNLV in 2005 and Canisius in December.
Crazy is a mild way to put the finish, something the Panthers (23-13) were accustomed to after reaching Sunday’s second-round matchup thanks to Paul Jesperson’s buzzer-beating halfcourt winner against Texas two nights earlier.
However, this time around it was Texas A&M putting together the last-second heroics on its way to reaching the Sweet 16 for the third time in school history — the first since 2007.
More precisely, it was a last 44 seconds in which the Aggies were able to atone for what had been a dismal previous 39 minutes and 16 seconds.
Down 69-57 after Jeremy Morgan hit two free throws with 44 seconds remaining in regulation, Texas A&M proceeded to outscore the 11th-seeded Panthers 14-2 from there — capped by Admon Gilder’s steal and layup with 1.9 seconds remaining that tied the game at 71-71 and sent it to the first overtime.
That 44 seconds included four turnovers by Northern Iowa, which was without its main inbounds passer Matt Bohannon because of a left knee injury, and a resurgence by House — who missed his first nine shots of the game and was scoreless until 5:14 remaining in regulation.
“We knew it was kind of impossible, man, but we just said that we were going to fight until the end,” House said.
Once into overtime, it was Caruso who sent the game to a second with a drive and layup with 5.9 seconds left in the first extra period, tying the game at 83-83.
And in the second, the surging Aggies finally wore down a hobbled and short-handed Northern Iowa team missing two of its starters after fouling out. It was House who capped the scoring with a free throw with 12.6 seconds remaining to give Texas A&M a 92-88 lead, with a most unexpected and euphoric celebration following moments later on the Chesapeake Arena court.
The Aggies have now won 10 of their last 11 games entering next week’s Sweet 16, but few — if any — will top Sunday night.
“I’ve never been a part of a game like that, never saw one,” Aggies coach Billy Kennedy said. “(I) still really don’t know what happened.”
For Northern Iowa, the dramatic turn of fortunes in the final minute was a difficult blow to handle after Friday night’s last-second miracle against the Longhorns.
Morgan had career highs of 36 points and 12 rebounds, while Klint Carlson matched his career high with 17 points, but all of the positives of the first 39 minutes of the game were lost amid the postgame tears.
“It’s just tough,” Bohannon said. “It’s the NCAA Tournament, though, that’s what happens.”
The Panthers, seeking their second Sweet 16 appearance in school history, led by as many as 15 points in the second half. However, they were unable to overtime the series of last-minute miscues that left them on the opposite end of emotion compared to their opening-round win.
“It shouldn’t have ended tonight,” said Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson, who added the loss was “no question” the toughest to handle of his career.