Rebounding with resilience – Fortitude propels BYU to victory on and off the court

If you ask Dave Rose, a 25-point deficit is nothing compared to the uphill battle for his own life.

The BYU head basketball coach first heard the rumblings of uncertainty when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in June of 2009. After being whisked off a plane and undergoing emergency surgery to remove a softball-sized tumor, Rose faced a series of critical cancer scans that would dictate the next several months. Suddenly, the upcoming season and concerns like the New Mexico full-court press seemed trivial.

BYU head basketball coach Dave Rose was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2009. After successful surgery, he coached the entire 2009-10 season, leading the Cougars to their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
Photo courtesy of BYU Athletic Department.

When Rose addressed his squad three weeks after the operation, he stood frail and depleted. His future seemed tenuous. After the meeting, the team agreed to fast and pray for their coach.

In September of 2009, Rose underwent a cancer scan at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City to determine whether he would be back as BYU’s coach for the approaching season. The news was good. Rose would return to lead the Cougars and the cancer would be relegated to the bench.

Throughout the experience, Rose said his faith, family and friends provided reinforcement and hope.

“One of the first questions, I asked myself after the diagnosis was not ‘Why me?’ but ‘What can I achieve?'” Rose said.

Shift ahead to March 13, 2012 – Rose and the Cougars are matched up against the University of Iona in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament. After 14 minutes, BYU trails 49-24. The Cougars appear severely overmatched, lagging several steps behind each Iona fast break. The game is nothing short of a systematic rout. Broadcasters calling the play-by-play have already begun talking about Iona’s second-round contest with Marquette.

Then something happened, something that rang of the resilience that Coach Rose exemplified on his road back from a daunting disease.

Slowly but surely, BYU began to carve away at the margin. After making a slight run at the close of the first half, the Cougars held Iona without a basket for over nine minutes. During the same span, the BYU offense generated 17 points. Suddenly, Iona’s lead was a mere point, at 62-61, midway through the second half.

“Coach Rose talked about how a comeback could happen,” said BYU senior Noah Hartsock. “We just tried to chip it down.”

Rose instituted a scrambling zone defense in the second half that seemed to throw the opponent out of sync. After scoring 55 points in the first 16 minutes, Iona managed only seven points over 16:30 of the second half.

BYU senior Noah Hartsock led the Cougars with 23 points in a 78-72 comeback win over Iona on March 13 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. BYU overcame a 25-point deficit to earn the victory, a new NCAA record for the biggest comeback in tournament history.
Photo courtesy of BYU Athletic Department.

“The pace of the game was really fast,” said Rose. “The challenge for us was to find that second wind, so we could keep that pace for the entire game.”

Hartsock was one BYU player who found his second wind late in the season after suffering a serious knee sprain in mid-February against Santa Clara. The team’s leading scorer failed to find the hoop in a road game against Gonzaga and sat out Senior Night against Portland in Provo on Feb. 25.

Against Iona, Hartsock led the charge with 23 points, 16 in the second half. His three-pointer with just over two minutes left in the game gave the Cougars the lead for good.

“We got down early, but we made some adjustments and just competed,” Hartsock said. “We started getting some momentum and confidence – that’s what really helped us.”

While Hartsock’s clutch points were critical to the victory, junior Brandon Davies was equally vital in the rebounding department. Davies collected a team-best 15 boards and contributed 18 points while serving as a swarming defensive force in the middle of the zone.

BYU junior Brandon Davies had 18 points and 15 rebounds against Iona. After trailing 49-24 late in the first half, the Cougars held Iona to 23 points over the game’s final 26 minutes.
Photo courtesy of BYU Athletic Department.

When asked in the post-game press conference about Davies’ contributions to the win, Rose said he was proud of the junior from Provo High School. After sitting out the NCAA tournament last year because of a suspension stemming from a BYU honor code violation, Davies worked his way back this season to become a team catalyst.

“I’m really happy for him,” Rose said. “He’s been through a lot, but he’s been terrific throughout the entire thing.”

While the game remained undecided until the final minutes, Brock Zylstra’s layup and subsequent foul shot in the waning seconds clinched the victory and tournament history for BYU. Going back to 1939, the first year of the national bracket, no team had ever battled back from such a substantial deficit to win. Duke had held the previous record, climbing from 22 points down in the national semifinal game against Maryland in 2001 to defeat the Terrapins 95-84.

“This is a team that’s worked hard all year and never given up,” Hartsock said.

While BYU would fall to Marquette later in the week, concluding their season with 26 wins against nine losses, many of the headlines in the opening week of the tournament were all about the team from Utah that came back from the brink to set a new precedent.

Rose, who has been cancer-free for nearly three years now, said the historic comeback was about maintaining a belief that victory could be attained – even against improbable odds.

Rose has compiled a .774 winning percentage in seven seasons at BYU.
Photo courtesy of BYU Athletic Department.

“I don’t think anyone on our coaching staff or our team ever doubted we could chip away at that lead,” he said. “We had a lot of disappointing offensive possessions that we had to react to positively on the defensive end – that showed some real character.”

Editor’s note: To read more about Dave Rose and his fight against cancer, see the Aug. 30, 2010 issue of the Latter-day Sentinel, located in the archives on the left-hand side of the home page.

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