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Fourteen ways Northern Iowa could have prevented Texas A&M’s miracle comeback

Brutal. So, so brutal. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Northern Iowa set – shattered, really – college basketball’s cruelest record Sunday night. No Division I team had ever blown a 12-point with less than a minute remaining before the Panthers’ 12-point lead over Texas A&M evaporated Sunday night in Oklahoma City in the final 44.3 seconds of regulation. It had never happened in Division I, not even in some untelevised, December tiny-conference game. But it happened to the Panthers in the second round of the NCAA tournament, in full view of the whole country.

It led to a 92-88 double-overtime loss that left your voice hoarse from screaming at the television, screaming something like, “Throw the ball down the court!” or “Nooooooo!” It left you scraping yourself off the living room carpet. It left you cringing hours later, sitting in bed, despite a clear dearth of stakes.

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After further examination of the horror-show final 45 seconds of regulation, it is easy to understand why this had never happened before. Every possible decision, bounce, action and twist of fate had to go against Northern Iowa for it not to win in regulation. The game wasn’t tied until 1.8 seconds remained, and it’s staggering how much had to happen to preserve those 1.8 seconds.

What’s truly amazing is not that Northern Iowa made an unparalleled series of panicked, boneheaded mistakes. It’s that Northern Iowa could make those exact panicked, boneheaded mistakes in precisely the same sequence and still not have blown the lead. It was neither heroic comeback nor historic choke. It was a force majeure.

Having sifted through the wreckage, here are 14 things that could have happened in 45.3 seconds of clock that would have negated Northern Iowa’s unthinkable collapse and unimaginable agony.

1. Matt Bohannon didn’t have to bang his left knee on the court. A crucial moment happened even before UNI’s fold began. Bohannon is the senior coach Ben Jacobson designated as the Panthers’ inbounds passer late in games. Before Jeremy Morgan hit two free throws to make the margin 12, Bohannon injured his left knee and went to the bench for the remainder of regulation. The Panthers led by 12, and so it seemed the lack of their senior inbounder probably wouldn’t matter. Of course, it mattered.

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2. Northern Iowa could have grabbed one rebound. With 35 seconds left and UNI still up 12, A&M guard Alex Caruso missed a three-pointer. Freshman 6-foot-3 guard Admon Gilder rose to snare an offensive rebound in front of 6-7 forward Klint Carlson and put back a lay-up. With that one defensive rebound, the game would have been over – UNI would have been shooting free throws with a 12-point lead, the ball on the A&M end of the court.

3. Morgan could have knocked the ball out of bounds at midcourt. With the lead cut to 10 and 31 seconds left, Morgan mishandled an inbounds pass at halfcourt as a Texas A&M double team swarmed him. The Panthers still led by 10 with about 30 seconds left when the ball hit his hands. At that point, he didn’t even really need to avoid turning the ball over; he needed to avoid a specific kind of turnover. Had the ball simply bounded out of bounds, or into a scrum, the Aggies would have had to score against a set UNI defense, which at least would have chewed clock, probably enough to thwart a total comeback. Instead, the ball bounced toward the court, Gilder corralled it cleanly and fired a quick pass to Danuel House, who converted an easy layup against a scrambling defense.

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4. Paul Jesperson could have heaved the ball down the court. Upon receiving an inbounds pass with UNI up eight with 24 seconds left, Jesperson could have done literally anything but what he did, including simply falling out of bounds under his own hoop and forcing A&M to score against a set defense. What he did was catastrophic: He tried to hurl the ball off an Aggie’s leg, which actually served as perfect bounce pass to set up Jalen Jones’s easy dunk. With 21.7 seconds left, Texas A&M trailed by six.

5. Wyatt Lohaus could have not made the worst possible inbounds pass. Lohaus, Bohannon’s primary replacement, tossed a pass to the corner that never even touched a hand and landed out of bounds. Even if he threw the ball to a teammate in the corner and that teammate took a five-second call, the clock would have ticked to 16 seconds. At that point, the clock remained so far in UNI’s favor that even that kind of terribleness might have been a clinching play.

The horrific inbound not only meant no time elapsed. It actually managed to put time back on the clock. When Lohaus was under the basket trying to inbound, the clock showed 21.7 seconds. With the stoppage in play caused by the ball being thrown out of bounds, referees checked the monitor to review exactly what time Jones’s dunk happened. They ruled it happened with precisely 22 seconds remaining. Not that 0.3 seconds meant much, but everything little thing that could go against UNI was going against UNI.

6. House could have missed a shot. UNI could not have choked without clutch moments from Texas A&M, and this might have been the most pivotal. House caught an inbounds pass on the left wing, rose up and swished a three-pointer. If it missed, the game would probably have been over – even a stickback would have left it a four-point – two-possession – game. At this point, Texas A&M had scored seven points in 10 seconds and trailed by three with 19.6 seconds left.

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7. The ref could have swallowed his whistle. The officials were not to blame, not even a little. But they played a role in the comeback. After a long pass led to a quick dunk, UNI pushed the lead back to five with 17.6 seconds left. Caruso then drove and converted a layup, and Jesperson made contact with him, holding his hands up while backing away. The official called an and-one.

It wasn’t necessarily a bad call, but it was far from obvious. This moment had less to do with poor officiating than chance – if that play happens 10 times in that situation, Jesperson maybe gets called for a foul five times. Every little hinge that could go swivel against Northern Iowa did.

8. Caruso could have missed the free throw. Caruso shot 78.5 percent from the foul line this season and made 3-of-5 free throws for the game. This was one of the three. The lead had been cut to two with 11.8 seconds left.

9. Jesperson could have heaved the ball the length of the court. Jacobsen turned to Jesperson to inbound the ball, and Jesperson could have thrown the ball anywhere but where he did. If he heaved it deep to a teammate, maybe a Panther comes down with it, maybe not. There probably would have been some sort of clock-chewing scramble for the ball. In the event of a turnover, at least Texas A&M would have had to dribble the length of the court. Instead, he passed it to 6-1 guard Wes Washpun in the left corner, the worst place to inbound the ball.

Two Aggies converged on Washpun, which set up the final play of regulation. Trapped by two Aggies, the baseline and a sideline, Washpun hugged the ball, panicked, leapt and, like Jesperson before him, tried to chuck the ball off a defender’s leg. It served as a bounce pass to Gilder, who dribbled to the hoop and made a game-tying layup with 1.8 seconds left. Even in that one play, so many things, even beyond the obvious, could have happened to avoid the final act of the comeback.

10. Washpun could have been called for five seconds. Washpun caught the ball with 11.8 seconds remaining. When he leapt and attempted to bounce the ball off an Aggie’s leg, the clock showed 5.5 seconds. Washpun held the ball while closely guarded for 6.3 seconds and could/should have been called for a five-second violation. If he had been, Texas A&M would have to score against a set UNI defense after inbounding from the corner, the hardest place on the floor from which to set up a play. They might have scored, but it would not have been as easy as the resulting layup from Washpun’s ill-fated fling.

Brain cramp: Players cannot be called for five seconds in college basketball games when in the backcourt. We regret this error.

11. Jones could have been called for a foul. Again, officiating didn’t decide anything, but it played a role. As Washpun hugged the ball in the corner, Jones swiped at the ball. It might have been a foul. It’s possible Jones was trying to foul Washpun to stop the clock. Like Jesperson’s foul earlier on Caruso, it wasn’t a bad call. But it’s a call that frequently gets made – let’s conservatively say it’s called 30 percent of the time. For UNI to blow the game, the ref had to swallow his whistle in this one instance. And he did. Not the wrong call, but a decision that had to go against UNI and did.

12. Washpun could have passed to Morgan. A couple seconds after Washpun caught the ball, Morgan ran to the right wing, about 15 feet in front of Washpun, wide open. It would have been difficult for Washpun to get the ball over two tall defenders, and maybe it was impossible for him to see Morgan. But Morgan had zero defenders around him for a solid two seconds. Any kind of pass would have reached him safely and likely sealed the game. Watching Morgan standing there, hands outstretched, is painful.

13. Washpun could have chucked the ball over his head. This — surely easier said than done — is what should have happened even after everything else turned against UNI. If Washpun had heaved the ball as high and as far as he could have down the court with around seven seconds showing, it’s highly doubtful the Aggies would have had enough time to retrieve the ball, come down the floor and score. 

14. Gilder could have missed a shot. Even after everything that went wrong for Washpun in the corner, the Panthers led by two with 4.8 seconds left. Gilder corralled the ball, took two dribbles and made an acrobatic shot, laying the ball in on the right side of the rim as momentum carried him to the left side of the hoop. UNI’s appalling chain of events led to the moment, but Gilder had to make a clutch play for it matter.

It was impossible. It was a special kind of mess. It got worse. The Panthers somehow regrouped and led by three points with less than a minute remaining in overtime. They still led by two until Caruso made a driving layup with five seconds left. They had to play another overtime before they lost, and the blown lead had calcified into a painful memory.

It took so much for it to happen, more than any of them could control.