OMAHA — In the 2008 national championship, with Kansas trailing Memphis by three and 10.8 seconds left in the game, coach Bill Self called for his team to run a play called “Chop.”
The play, designed to provide multiple scoring options in moments of desperation, began with Sherron Collins dribbling up the court. Veering to his right, Collins handed off to Mario Chalmers at the top of the key, and Chalmers took the first of his options: He shot the 3-pointer.
It splashed through the net to force overtime.
Kansas went on to win the title, and that perfectly executed play became known as “Mario's Miracle.” And if anybody thinks calling it a miracle is hyperbole, well, chances are they haven't been watching as teams flounder through the final minutes in this year's NCAA Tournament.
Turnovers, missed shots, poor coaching and worse execution. Just call it organized chaos, late-game blunders that have nevertheless produced some memorable finishes.
“First of all, the reason you struggle in games is because the other team's pretty doggone good,” explained North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose team survived two close games to reach the Sweet 16. “The other thing is the attention, the pressure — they're still 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids. I mean, they're not going to get it right.”
Indeed, many of today's brightest stars are freshmen and sophomore, players unaccustomed to the game's biggest stage. That dearth of veteran leaders, several coaches have argued, is also one of the big reasons that that scoring continued its downward trend this season.
Another reason for the late-game flubs: Low- and mid-majors are often trying to upset a heavyweight, and the talent gap becomes more pronounced when the game is on the line.
That appeared to be the case last Thursday, when UC-Irvine had Louisville on the ropes.
The Anteaters were inbounding the ball near midcourt, trailing 57-55 with about 6 seconds left. Alex Young was promptly stripped by the Cardinals' Terry Rozier, a turnover 40 feet from the hoop that prevented the Big West champs from even attempting a tying shot.
“We had a quick play lined up and unfortunately I lost the ball,” Young said. “We couldn't get a timeout, and it just happens. It's basketball.”
Speaking of timeouts, Northeastern burned through its allotment in the second half against Notre Dame, leaving coach Bill Coen unable to set up a final play with the Huskies trailing by two in the closing seconds. Instead of getting a tying shot off, Quincy Ford coughed up the ball, and the Fighting Irish added a couple of free throws to seal the victory.
Asked about his timeout dilemma, Coen replied: “I wish we'd had one left.”
Irvine and Northeastern weren't the only teams that failed to get shots off with the game on the line, either. The same thing happened to Valparaiso, whose coach Bryce Drew knocked down that infamous 3-pointer that sent the Crusaders past Ole Miss in 1998.
Valpo was trailing Maryland 65-62 with time running out on Friday, and Keith Carter got stuck in the corner in front of his own bench. He never even got a 3-pointer off.
“I'll take the blame from that,” Drew said afterward. “I thought Maryland did a really good job. We tried to do something a little different off one of the plays we usually run.”
When the Jayhawks flawlessly ran “Chop” in the 2008 title game, they had practiced that exact play hundreds of times. And the person who took the 3-pointer? Chalmers, a seasoned junior.
“There is a lot of pressure,” acknowledged Williams, who whose Tar Heels survived a tense finish against Harvard in their NCAA opener. “You've got to find some kids that can block all that out, and especially if they're really, really talented, you've got a better chance.”
North Carolina took a 67-65 lead on the Crimson on a run-out with 23.8 seconds left. But rather than go to the basket for a layup or to draw a foul, Harvard's Wesley Saunders let loose a tightly guard 3-pointer with almost no time left that bounced off the back of the rim.
The Tar Heels advanced. The Crimson headed home.
“We certainly have situations that we go over when we're down one possession and things that we're looking for,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “Wesley is our playmaker. … If he was going to get a three, get a drive, get a two, we were going to live with his decision there.”
Just like many other teams that now have to live with their last-second slipups.
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