DAYTON, Ohio -- We were all thrilled and confused Tuesday night.
What had we just witnessed?
The evening’s matchups offered surprises that caused grown men to speak in fragments at the University of Dayton Arena.
“I just don’t … I mean … I’ve never …”
At that point, there was nothing to say.
The gym’s floor had been transformed from the site of the postseason’s afterthought to a canvas for college basketball history.
In this season’s First Four -- still fighting for legitimacy among college basketball fans -- the NCAA tournament commenced with the greatest comeback in the final five minutes of a game. Western Kentucky recovered from a 16-point deficit to secure a 59-58 victory over Mississippi Valley State.
And just a few hours later, BYU launched the greatest comeback in NCAA tournament history when it recovered from 25-point hole against Iona and sealed a 78-72 win.
“What an exciting game,” said BYU head coach Dave Rose.
That would qualify as an understatement. After BYU’s victory, fans, scribes, coaches and players spent a few minutes meandering around the building in a stupor, intoxicated by the liquor called March Madness.
President Obama and British prime minister David Cameron sat courtside for the Hilltoppers’ victory over the Delta Devils. And by the end of night, the president’s appearance had become a sidebar to the explosive start of America’s favorite tournament.
As Western Kentucky stormed back, the commander in chief formed a “T” with his hands and mouthed the word “timeout.” He’d gotten caught up in the craze, too.
Obama, however, missed the best game. He left immediately after the conclusion of Western Kentucky’s win over MVSU, in which it rallied from 16 down in the final five minutes.
In the nightcap, Iona scored 55 points in the first 15 minutes and 26 seconds of its meeting with BYU. And then the Cougars tortured the Gaels for the remaining 24-plus minutes, nibbling at that lead until the final minutes.
Iona scored 55 points and shot 69 percent from the field and 71 percent on 3-pointers in the first 15:26 of the game. But in the final 24:34, the Gaels scored 17 points, shot 20 percent from the field and made just 1 of 18 3-pointers. They also turned it over 15 times during that stretch.
At one point, BYU went on a 17-0 run and held Iona scoreless for more than nine minutes. By the time Noah Hartsock (23 points) nailed a 3-pointer with 2:28 on the game clock,the Cougars had a 71-70 lead. By the end of the night, the Cougars had authored a 31-point swing and surpassed Duke’s 22-point comeback against Maryland in the 2001 Final Four.
“I started looking around and didn’t see [Obama]. But I’m sure he had some important things to take care of,” Hartsock said. “But it was just great just being here at the game and just grateful we could man together and get a win.”
This is why America falls for this event every year. This is why President Obama brought Cameron to Dayton.
For the possibilities presented by the NCAA tournament.
There aren’t any ridiculous brackets. Amazing things happen in March.
Iona had locked up a victory. The Gaels looked like UNLV from the early ’90s. Then they ran into a crafty zone, and turned into a team that didn’t know how to score.
“We started getting our hands on loose balls and tipping it,” Hartsock said. “We were just trying to be active.”
Iona’s collapse jacked up part of my bracket. I predicted two Gaels victories.
But I wasn’t concerned.
I’d just watched two of the greatest comebacks in college basketball history. In Dayton. With the President of the United States in the crowd for one of them.
Welcome to March.
That was the message that Western Kentucky and BYU sent during the first two games of the First Four.
And if that was the appetizer, I can’t wait for the main course later in the week.