My Take: Late Game Drama!
Ever wonder why so many games are won or lost in the final seconds in March or why so many come down to a few decisions or coaching strategies and sometimes the moves (whether right or wrong) by guys between the ages of 15-to-23? Imagine what it’s like in a timeout with the game on the line, with just a few seconds remaining and everything seems larger than life. In the few instances I’ve had to be close to a basketball huddle during a close game it is pretty chaotic. The players are trying to catch their breath while coaches are talking amongst themselves and the head guy is trying to diagram a play or strategy, while reminding his team of the situation such as timeouts, the clock and sometimes foul situations. Oh and by the way, did I mention the crowd noise, the loud band and nerves and fatigue? It’s pretty easy, no matter how experienced you are or used to a situation to make a mistake and you only get a couple seconds to do so.

Here’s such a situation.
Your team is up by three, there are only seconds remaining and the other team has the possession needing a three to tie it. Oh! Your team also has just four team fouls. What’s the most logical thing to do? Conventional wisdom tells you to foul the player with the ball and force the other team to restart the offense possibly shattering their game plan.
For a basketball coach whether it’s high school, college or pro this situation will probably come up several times during a season and how it’s handled will determine the winner or loser of that game. For John Hardin head coach Jared McCurry, this situation happened on a cold night in March at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The Bulldogs were playing in their first KHSAA State Basketball game in nearly five years and John Hardin had a three point lead on Pikeville with mere seconds remaining. Because the Bulldogs only had four team fouls at the time, fouling seemed to be a safe move because the ball handler would only go to the line if in the act of shooting. Well, we all know how that scenario ended as Pikeville was able to locate a shooter (Wyatt Battaile) in the right corner and he hit the three that tied the game with 00:01 remaining in regulation. The Panthers survived three overtimes to win, 72-69. Still, there were plenty of questions afterward as to whether fouling would have been the right strategy. McCurry had mentioned in an interview afterwards that was the plan, but it just didn’t happen. Still, even fouling guaranteed nothing. In fact, letting the Panthers waste time setting up a possible shot seemed like good thinking because they cooled off considerably after the first half. After hitting 4-of-10 in the first two quarters, Pikeville was only 2-of-9 in the second half with 00:18 left and Battaile, who was 3-of-4 in the first half was ice cold (1-of-4) before he hit the game tying shot. So why worry and just simply let the other team just shoot blanks in their last attempt to stay alive.

McCurry’s situation isn’t new and in fact there were several such instances in the NCAA Tournament including a missed one which went in the Kansas State Wildcats favor. After Barry Brown scored the basket that put K-State up 60-58, Kentucky had several chances to tie the game including their last shot trailing by three. Shai Gileous-Alexander had a shot at the tie and there was some question then whether Kansas State should have fouled then, UK was only 16-42 from the field including 3-12 from outside the arc and Gileous-Alexander was 0-2 so the strategy worked this time. Also John Calipari was criticized by some for not calling a timeout before their next to last shot right after Brown’s eventual game winner.

Several days later, Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton was questioned immediately after their loss to Michigan by Turner sports journalist Dana Jacobson about why his team chose not to foul with 00:11 remaining in regulation and his team trailing just by four points and appeared a bit put off by the question, (He has since issued a statement defending Jacobson’s stance) even though it was a pretty legitimate question. In theory, an intentional foul would lead to two shots, but there is always a possibility of two misses and if you don’t think making up a four point deficit is impossible check out the crazy ending to the Virginia-Louisville ending with the Cavaliers trailing by four with less than 00:02 left.

One of the more memorable late game situations in college basketball involved timeouts, but for the wrong reason, because when Michigan center Chris Webber called the infamous fourth timeout in the Championship game there was a long debate afterwards whether the Wolverines head coach Steve Fisher had mentioned during their last break that they were out of timeouts. What was interesting was that in the book “Fab Five by Mitch Albom” he had mentioned it twice (before and after the break), but that timeout occurred with about 60 seconds left and there were about two changes of possessions during that time until Michigan had possession after Pat Sullivan missed the back end of a one and one leaving the score at 73-71.
When Michigan took possession with 00:20 left after Webber pulled down the missed shot, Webber nearly walked and that may have disrupted his train of thought because the entire Carolina bench screamed “Walk! Walk!” and then when he was trapped by both George Lynch and Derrick Phelps with 00:11 left and during the confusion signaled timeout ringing up a technical foul (two free throws and a change of possession) not to mention the game. The question remained, did Webber simply forget or in the confusion and fear of getting tied up with the ball called timeout because someone on the Michigan sideline had screamed it during those frantic moments? So many things happen during game action and even the great ones can get frazzled in the moment of truth.

To close out this discussion, there was one more such situation involving another top team in a win-or-go home situation back in March and once again a game which came down to protecting a three point lead late with a chance to foul to protect that cushion came undone. This time it was Louisville’s Women’s basketball team against Mississippi State in the Women’s Final Four and a three point lead with seconds to go and head coach Jeff Walz did instruct his team to foul before the shooter could get the ball, but once again were unable to get the job done. Although that game will be best remembered for Sam Fuering’s technical foul and the two missed shots at the end which either would have won the game for Louisville and sent them to their third National Championship game in ten seasons, the game tying three pointer which sent the game to overtime played a huge part in deciding the outcome and showed the importance of late game strategy and how cause and effect help shape game outcomes.
So regardless to what you might think, there really is no game that’s completely out of reach as long as you can foul and somehow manipulate the rules to get extra possessions and even at that there are no guarantees. Which is why we keep watching and why everyone is an armchair head coach.
I guess that’s why they call it “March Madness!”