Never say never: Reliving Texas A&M’s miracle comeback over Northern Iowa
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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Josh Gibson drove 315 miles from Texarkana, Texas, to Oklahoma City for Texas A&M’s second-round NCAA tournament game against Northern Iowa on Sunday. That didn’t include a 90-minute detour, which forced him to drive 110 mph through some backwater towns just to reach Chesapeake Arena by tip-off.
Gibson is the brother-in-law of Texas A&M strength coach Darby Rich, and he had spent most of the past three weeks crisscrossing the southwest to support him. With every trip came an obstacle—a road closure, a flight delay or a monsoon.
So when Texas A&M trailed by 10 heading into the final minute, Gibson and his 10-year-old son, Jackson, got out of their third row seats behind the A&M bench and went to watch the final minute from the concourse. When Northern Iowa went up by 12 with 44 seconds left, Gibson and his son sprinted out of the arena to their Nissan Maxima to beat the traffic.
Ten miles into his five-hour drive, Gibson began receiving calls and texts wondering where he’d gone, as friends and family noticed the empty seats behind the bench. When Texas A&M forced overtime after completing the largest final-minute comeback in the history of college basketball, Gibson was getting play-by-play on speaker phone from his brother. “I got physically ill to the point where I’m about to throw up,” Gibson says. “I love my brother-in-law to death and he’s having a great moment, and I’ll never get to experience that for the rest of my life. It was the worst five-hour ride home.”
Texas A&M held off Northern Iowa in double-overtime, 92–88, clinching an indelible spot in NCAA tournament lore. Much like college basketball fans will remember where they were when UCLA point guard Tyus Edney went coast-to-coast to beat Missouri in 1995 or Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew's buzzer–beater against Ole Miss in 1998, they’ll remember how they saw—or missed—Texas A&M’s frenetic comeback. The NCAA tournament, at its wondrous essence, produces spontaneous moments that can’t be replicated anywhere else in sports. And on Wednesday in Anaheim, as No. 3 Texas A&M prepared for its round of 16 game with No. 2 Oklahoma, tales of those moments bubbled out of the locker room. Where were you when Texas A&M pulled off the comeback of a lifetime?
After Texas A&M freshman guard Admon Gilder Jr. trapped UNI’s Wes Washpun in the short corner off the inbounds with less than 10 seconds remaining, Washpun panicked. He attempted to throw the ball off Gilder as he fell out of bounds, but Gilder had the savvy to step back, steal the ball and dart to the basket for the tying layup. The moment will live on as the seminal highlight of Texas A&M’s comeback, as it tied the game, 71–71, with 1.9 seconds remaining.
As Gilder secured his legacy, his parents were heading home to Dallas completely oblivious. Gilder’s mother, Paula, got diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer nearly two years ago. She’s in remission after 39 radiation and 11 chemotherapy treatments. But she still suffers from neuropathy, a side effect from the treatment that damages the nerves and leaves her with tingling in her hands and feet. So with a minute remaining, the Gilders ducked out to avoid the crowd.
Admon Gilder Sr. got on I-35 South to head back to Dallas and eventually got off at an OnCue gas station to buy some ice. (They’d packed Mountain Dew for the trip and wanted to drink it cold). At the ice machine in the store, a man in a Texas A&M hat walked past. Admon Gilder mentioned his son was on the team, and the man responded, “The game’s not over.” When Admon Gilder Sr. told the man his son’s name, he shot back, “Your son just tied the game!”
Admon Gilder bolted outside the store to tell his wife, leaving the ice on the counter. Then he ran back in and said, “You’re not joking, are you? I can’t tell my wife this if you’re joking.” The man reassured him again, and he darted out to hear the final score on the radio. Admon and Paula hugged and danced in the parking lot in utter joy and disbelief. “We’ll savor it for the rest of our lives,” Gilder Sr. says. And then he went back in the store and explained to the clerk that his son was on the A&M team that won. She still didn’t get it. He paid $0.27 for the cup of ice and left. “That wasn’t just a victory for Texas A&M,” Gilder Sr. says. “It’s a good win to give people hope. It confirmed to me, just like Jim Valvano said, never say never.”
The Gilders weren’t the only ones who abandoned hope. Three Texas A&M managers left the bench with about a minute remaining, preparing the locker room for the players. There’s a rule for road losses—the quicker you leave the better. “We kind gave up,” Texas A&M sophomore manager Reagan Skinner says. “I’m not going to lie, we did.”
As the managers positioned chairs and packed warmups, Skinner noticed the game clock in the locker room kept stopping. There was a small television in the hallway, so he went out to watch. When senior guard Danuel House hit a three-pointer to cut the UNI lead to three with 19 seconds left, Skinner started pacing the hallway. Fellow managers Dillon Elder and Reagan Rothenberger heard the commotion and came out to join him. Just as they entered the hall, UNI completed a full-court baseball pass for a dunk. Skinner did what any illogical fan would do: “I sent them back to the locker room,” he said with a laugh.
By the time Gilder trapped Washpun in the final seconds, Skinner began screaming: “TRAP! TRAP! TRAVEL!” The managers appeared at the door again and he yelled, “STAY IN THE LOCKER ROOM.” By the time Gilder’s layup kissed off the glass to tie the game, Skinner was lying on the floor. Once it went home, he got up and sprinted back to the court as fast as he possibly could. His fellow managers followed right behind him. After they grabbed a seat in the stands, a dreadful thought emerged. “Should we go back in the locker room,” he said he thought to himself. “I was thinking that actually played a factor.”
Skinner didn’t have exclusive bragging rights on irrational thoughts. On press row, SEC associate commissioner Mark Whitworth began googling the last time no SEC reached the round of 16. (It was 2009). His boss, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, watched from the basement of his home in Alabama. When his wife, Cathy, tried to come back in the room during the comeback, Sankey briefly banned her on the count of karma. While she did watched the final moments of regulation with her husband, Cathy Sankey retreated to another room for overtime. “I was locked in the whole time,” Sankey deadpanned. “Never had a doubt.”
Mary Kennedy didn’t lose faith. Her husband, A&M coach Billy Kennedy, has battled Parkinson’s disease since 2011. Billy Kennedy took a month-long leave of absence and has since changed his diet and lifestyle to better combat the disease. As he has fought Parkinson’s, Kennedy has repeatedly pointed to the notes, cards and prayers from Texas A&M fans and supporters. On Sunday night, he gave them the ultimate reciprocation for their support. “We’ve spent the whole year being grateful and amazed at what where we are now as opposed to where we were,” Mary Kennedy said by phone from, fittingly, Disneyland on Wednesday. “This is something pretty special.”
Especially for those who didn’t leave early.