March Madness doesn’t officially start for another 10 days, but make no mistake, the push for the NCAA tournament is just as maddening.
I’m not sure how (or why) I ended up watching Western Carolina vs. Davidson and Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s simultaneously at 10:45 PM ET last night, but I did. And as is usually the case with conference championships, I witnessed chaotic, passionate, and thrilling basketball. Oh yes, there was plenty of incompetence down the stretch, too.
Let’s start with Saint Mary’s failure to close. Up five with 31 seconds left and a 2nd free throw coming to extend the lead to six, you’d think Saint Mary’s victory was all but sealed and that elusive ticket to the big dance punched. Not so.
After failing to convert on the second free throw, Saint Mary’s allowed Gonzaga an offensive rebound off a missed 3 pointer. Losing and surrendering offensive rebounds are synonymous, or so it always seems. With a put-back, Gonzaga trailed by three with 11 seconds remaining.
Then, Saint Mary’s made the biggest uh-oh of all; the ball handler got caught in the corner, picked up his dribble, and started yelling for his mom. Ok, I made the last part up, but we’ve all seen that helpless look basketball players get when they can’t dribble, can’t pass, and can only hope the opposing players hacking endlessly at the ball will be called for a foul. In this case, the foul never came and Gonzaga forced a jump ball, possession arrow Gonzaga. With new life, Gonzaga hit a desperation three to tie the game and force overtime. It was a great shot, but let’s be honest, if you blow a five point lead in 31 seconds, your opponent didn’t pull off a miracle; you simply did everything wrong.
Although Saint Mary’s would go on to close it out in overtime, two things continually amaze me about this time of year: 1. How incredibly awkward fans look when the broadcast zooms in on them yelling at the camera. I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable. 2. How poorly college basketball teams execute down the stretch. You’d think someone turned off the oxygen in the gym or there was a secret rule requiring players to panic as if they just found out they were going to be a dad for the first time. It’s amazing, and it never fails. Ever. (Saint Mary’s final possessions in regulation were all isolation plays similar to what the Celtics would run for Paul Pierce. One problem; Paul Pierce doesn’t play for Saint Mary’s.)
Davidson’s collapse was actually worse. They checked out prematurely and allowed W. Carolina to close out regulation on a 14-2 run, including three 3 pointers in the final 1:15 AND three converted free throws on a ridiculously stupid foul.
About the foul… Davidson was up three with only seconds left. W. Carolina was scrambling, trying to get off a decent shot. The Davidson player (sorry, too lazy to look up names) recklessly stormed the shooter (who was off balance and fading to his right) and fouled him. The gutsy W. Carolina player walked to the line and drained all three free throws without batting an eye, sending the game into overtime. (Here is where I mention the Timberwolves committed the same foolish mistake against the Clippers. Only, Chris Paul badly bricked his third attempt after connecting on his first two, costing the Clippers a chance in overtime.) Like Saint Mary’s, Davidson would eventually prevail in overtime (double overtime, actually).
Blowing a 12 point lead with under four minutes remaining or letting a five point lead disappear in the final half minute don’t make for picturesque victories. However, for the sake of my entertainment, I welcomed the struggles of both Davidson and Saint Mary’s. Besides, without teams blowing leads late in games and players committing mind-numbing mistakes, the heroic shots and close games we cherish would not be as prevalent. And without any of that madness, March just wouldn’t be the same.