Thursday, February 10, 2011

The best buzzer beaters, the worst collapses

Last night, Rutgers somehow defeated Villanova in Big East action, despite trailing by five points with 11 seconds remaining. Rutgers drained a 3 with seven seconds to play, and after Villanova made just one of two free throws for a three-point lead, Rutgers hit a 3 with .8 seconds left. Standard comeback stuff.

Except on the Rutgers 3, Villanova fouled the shooter, who hit the free throw for a four-point play and one incredible 77-76 victory.

These types of games are stunning because they appear out of nowhere and the losing coach goes from happiness to contemplating retirement while the players wonder if some of their teammates are actively throwing games. A standard buzzer-beater is exciting enough, but it usually comes at the end of a game that's been close throughout, a game where neither team grabs more than a 3-point lead in the final minute. Collapses are even more fun to watch, unless it's your team on the losing end.

Some of the more memorable comebacks.

This is one of the more memorable offensive explosions in NBA history. Tracy McGrady scores 13 points in 33 seconds against the Spurs. Houston trailed 76-68 with 35 seconds left when McGrady drilled a 3. For the Spurs, it went downhill from there. The opponent made the comeback even more improbable. McGrady, who had 20 points in the first 47 minutes, did it against the best defensive team of the past decade, a four-time NBA champion. Bruce Bowen, one of the best individual defenders of the past 15 years, guarded him, but proved helpless against McGrady.

This next game is probably still painful for my uncle and cousin. My uncle was a longtime professor at Winona State in Minnesota and remains a hell of a basketball player, even at 70. Winona State dominated Division II for three years, winning two titles. But the year they didn't win is the most memorable. In 2007, the defending national champs, who were riding a 57-game winning streak, led Barton 74-67 with 45 seconds remaining. From there...

Until I started searching YouTube for crazy endings, I had never seen a clip of the following game. It might be the craziest of all. It's from 1999, USC at Oregon. With 2.8 seconds, USC had the ball but trailed by five points. They hit a three from the corner. Oregon then, inexplicably, attempts a long pass, which is intercepted by a Trojan, who knocks in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer. It seems like the clock operator might be partly to blame, even though the game was in Oregon. How does the guy catch the ball and get a shot off in .8 seconds? Look out for future Celtic great Brian Scalabrine.

In the 2001 Final Four, which was held in the Metrodome, long before the stadium became a metaphor for the Vikings' 2010 season, Duke trailed Maryland 39-17 in the first half, before rallying for a 95-84 victory. Two nights later the Blue Devils won the national championship.

But Maryland was used to blowing big leads against Duke. In January of that year, the Terrapins squandered a 10-point lead in just a minute, on their home court, before losing in overtime. Duke guard Jason Williams led the charge, helped along by some horrific Maryland ballhandling and passing.

These comebacks in the final 30 seconds should be more common in the pros, where teams take the ball out at halfcourt after timeouts. But maybe the college game lends itself to more improbable finishes, as inexperienced players crumble in the final minutes with bad free throw shooting and worse ballhandling.

But the pros aren't immune, as the Spurs proved against McGrady and as bad teams prove several times a season. Earlier this year, Sacramento coughed up a four-point lead in the final 8 seconds. More accurately, the Kings lost a four-point lead in the final four seconds as the Warriors managed to pull off a feat that probably hasn't happened more than five times in basketball history. Trailing by 4, Golden State's Reggie Williams made the first first free throw and missed the second on purpose. When Sacramento fumbled the rebound out of bounds, the Warriors threw in from under their own basket to former Laker Vlad Radmanovic, who hit a tying three at the buzzer. Golden State prevailed in overtime. It's tough enough missing a free throw on purpose in hopes of getting a tip to tie. Missing one and draining a game-tying 3-pointer? Seems completely implausible. But not against a bad team.

As far as I know, no film exists of one of the best comebacks ever, which, as always happens in those games, doubled as one of the great collapses of all time. My college coach Mike Augustine now coaches high school ball in Colorado. A few years ago his team held an 8-point lead with 14 seconds remaining. The opposition hit a three and got fouled. Augie's player complained about the call and the ref slapped him with a T. Three free throws later, Augie's team now only led by two and the opponent had the ball out of bounds. Inevitably - because any team that sees an 8-point lead cut to 2 in a second is seemingly destined to lose - the other team drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer, their ninth point in 14 seconds, giving them the victory and leaving Augie wondering about his chosen profession.

Epic collapses happen to high school teams and NBA champions, to bad teams and good. And it even happens in the movies. Remember South Bend Central going scoreless in the closing minutes of the Indiana state title game against Hickory and losing a six-point lead? As the Spurs, Kings, Terrapins and Augie know, when you don't put a team away, you leave an opening for guys like McGrady and Williams. And for Jimmy Chitwood.

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