On Friday night, Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson made a shot that nobody ever makes to send his team to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Two days after the Panthers sunk that miracle buzzer-beater from half-court, Northern Iowa got sunk by the greatest-slash-most-horrifying comeback in the history of March Madness—and probably in the history of college basketball. The only consolation for the Panthers: The game was on TruTV, so a total of eight people probably saw it happen.
With 44.3 seconds to go in the second half, Northern Iowa’s Jeremy Morgan made two free throws to give the Panthers a 69–57 lead over Texas A&M. With 36 seconds remaining, the Aggies’ Alex Caruso missed a three-pointer.
But then the Aggies started to make like Bernie Sanders in Michigan.
Admon Gilder got an offensive rebound and a putback to get the Aggies within 10 with 34 seconds to go.* A&M fans still looked sad, though, and play-by-play man Carter Blackburn said with great solemnity that “the SEC’s not gonna have a team in the Sweet 16.”
The Panthers, whose usual inbounds passer had just been forced from the game with a leg injury, then threw the ball away, leading to an A&M layup. The Panthers then threw the ball away again, leading to an Aggies dunk. THE PANTHERS THEN THREW THE BALL AWAY AGAIN. After the referees reviewed the clock for several minutes, Texas A&M made a three-pointer—the Aggies’ ninth point in a span of 14.4 seconds. Nine points in 14.4 seconds!
Northern Iowa then successfully completed an inbounds pass—wow!—for a breakaway dunk. The referees screwed up the clock again, leading to several more minutes of delays. Then A&M’s Alex Caruso drove the length of the floor for a layup, drew a foul, and made the free throw. A&M down two with 11.8 seconds to go.
That brings us to the next episode of Northern Iowa Inbounds Pass Theater. This time, Wes Washpun got trapped in the corner and threw the ball away. Again. Again? Again. Texas A&M intercepted Washpun’s desperation pass, and Admon Gilder made another layup to tie the game. A Northern Iowa heave from beyond half-court did not go in. Overtime.
Some statistics on this comeback: Northern Iowa failed to execute an inbounds play four times in 30 seconds. Texas A&M scored 14 points in a 32-second span. If they had maintained that pace for the entire 40 minutes of regulation time, they would have scored 1,050 points and would not have needed an absurd comeback to reach the Sweet 16. Those 1,050 points would have beaten Loyola Marymount’s single-game Division I scoring record by … 864 points.
A bunch of other weird stuff happened in overtime and double overtime, including Northern Iowa’s Jesperson taking and missing another potential half-court buzzer-beater in an attempt to become the college basketball equivalent of Johnny Vander Meer. But after a bunch of made and missed shots and other normal-ish things that tend to happen in basketball games, Texas A&M won 92–88. Commence mocking Seth Davis.
So, how crazy was this? Back in December, Canisius tied an NCAA record by coming back from 11 points down in the last minute to beat Louisiana-Monroe. Texas A&M bested that mark by one—and their 12-point comeback came in just more than 30 seconds.
In 2008, sabermetrician Bill James wrote a piece for Slate in which he laid out his personal heuristic for figuring out if a college basketball lead is safe. The formula:
- Take the number of points one team is ahead.
- Subtract three.
- Add a half-point if the team that is ahead has the ball, and subtract a half-point if the other team has the ball. (Numbers less than zero become zero.)
- Square that.
- If the result is greater than the number of seconds left in the game, the lead is safe.
In case you don’t want to calculate that yourself, James created a handy calculator to do it for you. In 2001, Duke came back from down 10 against Maryland with a little less than a minute to go. That was one of the most miraculous comebacks ever—and Maryland still didn’t blow a safe lead, according to James’ formula. Back in 2008, James could only find one game in the history of college basketball where a team had lost what he believed to be a “safe lead.” That was a 1974 contest in which “North Carolina trailed Duke, 86-78, with 17 seconds to play. … Duke had repeated misadventures in inbounding the basketball and wound up losing the game in overtime.”
Northern Iowa: Welcome to the club. According to James’ heuristic, a 12-point lead without the ball with 44 seconds to go is safe. So is a 10-point lead with the ball with 34 seconds to go. As James wrote, “The theory of a safe lead is that to overcome it requires a series of events so improbable as to be essentially impossible.” And belatedly: Welcome to the club, Louisiana-Monroe! That 11-point margin against Canisius was also a “safe lead.” (Update, March 21, 2016: Folks on Twitter identified a couple more blown “safe leads.” In the 2010 ACC Tournament, Miami came back from 10 points down to Virginia with less than 40 seconds remaining. And earlier this season, Kennesaw State blew an eight-point lead with just 16 seconds to go against Elon.)
All it takes to blow a safe lead, we found out on Sunday night, are four botched inbounds passes and a team scoring at a pace that would’ve obliterated the single-game Division I scoring record by 864 points. Condolences to Northern Iowa. But hey, that half-court shot was very cool.
Correction, March 21, 2016: This sentence originally misstated that Texas A&M’s comeback began with a layup with 31.1 seconds to go. The layup came with 34 seconds to go. The calculations throughout the post have been revised to account for that 2.9-second difference.