March 31, 2010

Excitement becoming routine

A typical Mr. SKIA brainshart led to me saving this entry as a draft instead of posting it, which I just now realized. So up it goes, only five days late.

Another day, another Holy Crap game in the NCAA Tournament.

The Kansas State-Xavier tilt had everything you could want. Comebacks. Controversial calls. Overtime. Clutch baskets. Another overtime.

The most amazing part of Kansas State's 101-96 win is that they somehow did not get totally demoralized. Seemingly everything went against them. The end of both regulation and overtime had to have been just devastating for them, and the fact that they didn't crumble in the face of all that adversity really speaks well of their chances going forward. (Editor's note: Oops.)

A Jacob Pullen 3 with 28 seconds left in regulation put K-State up 70-67, and after a Jason Love basket Pullen hit a pair of free throws to regain the 3-point edge. And that's when the old foul-so-they-can't-launch-a-game-tying-3 strategy backfired.* Instead of the ref's calling the foul when Terrell Holloway was grabbed, they called it on Chris Merriewether when Holloway was in his shooting motion 40 feet from the basket, which he only did because he knew he had already been fouled and was hoping to get three freebies instead of the one-and-one. And it worked, because the ref totally blew the call.

* I should mention here that while I know it's conventional wisdom that the foul is the smart play, I still don't like it. I've seen it backfire too many times. For one, if you just allow the team to shoot the 3, in general the worst thing that can happen is overtime. But I've seen teams make one free throw, get the rebound on the second, and hit a 3 to win. And fouling elongates the game, which is generally what the leading team wants to avoid. I've seen the foul come too early, the opponent makes its two free throws to get within one, fouls on the other end and the guy chunks both, then they hit a 2 for the one-point win. Plus, there's always the chance of a glitch like this one, where the guy gets three free throws. An 79.4% free-throw shooter -- not a ridiculously high number for a guy handling the ball/itching to shoot a 3 -- has a 50% chance of making all three foul shots. Considering that at best the same guy is probably a 45% 3-point shooter -- and the 3, unlike the free throws is an all-or-nothing proposition -- I prefer to keep the excessive strategizing out of it, play tough D, and let the chips fall where they may. Plus, game-tying 3-pointers are among the most exciting plays in sports, and I selfishly want to see more of them, not less.

After Holloway drained three clutcher-than-clutch free throws, Pullen missed a long 3 for the win to send the game to OT. The Wildcats had to be stinging, and Frank Martin was about as pissed off as I've ever seen any coach, and I suspect if the game/moment weren't so huge that he would've picked up at least one technical.

K-State bounced right back though, and built a four-point lead with 2:30 left. But Holloway sandwiched a 3 and a layup around a Curtis Kelly basket to pull Xavier back within one. Down 84-81 with under a minute to go, Holloway hit yet another 3 to tie it, but Pullen responded with layup. Holloway then missed a 3, and Merriewether got fouled with 19 seconds to play and a chance to ice the game. Merriewether split the pair, which in retrospect seems like the only time in the entire game that a player failed to completely deliver in the clutch.

Speaking of which, Jordan Crawford -- best known for this PR-disaster of a dunk -- then drilled an insanely deep and equally clutch, minimum-30-foot 3-pointer that tied the game at 87 with 7 seconds left. K-State then missed a chance to win at the OT buzzer.

At this point, I was convinced the Wildcats would fold. How could they not? By my count, there were three completely devastating moments -- the BS foul and Holloway's and Crawford's 3s.

But K-State refused to yield. Trailing by two with a little over a minute left in the second OT, Pullen gave Xavier a taste of its own medicine. He hit a 3 to put the Wildcats up 94-93, then hit another after a Love free throw to give them a 3-point edge, and Pullen and Denis Clemente made all four of their free throws down the stretch to seal the win.

All in all, one of the best college basketball games I've ever seen. And I feel like I've thought that about 17 times in this tournament.

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