Kris Jenkins’ shot to win Monday’s NCAA championship game will be remembered as perhaps the greatest buzzer-beater in the history of a tournament built on indelible moments. It also could’ve been avoided completely — at least if Villanova had managed those iconic final seconds differently.
With 13 seconds left and the Wildcats leading by three, they opted to defend North Carolina rather than foul and force the Tar Heels to execute a different plan. Villanova lunged for a steal, freeing up Marcus Paige to hit a gravity-defying, double-pump 3-pointer to tie the score 74-all with 4.7 seconds remaining.
Although Jenkins and Villanova one-upped Paige in the end, the sequence was the type basketball coaches find so fascinating and spend hours debating at clinics and over beers. Although fouling with a three-point lead is a hot philosophy in coaching circles, most men and women have formed their own philosophy based on trial and error.
“Situations like that, they make for great conversation,” Concordia College coach Brian Sondey said. “It’s what makes coaching fun.”
Of course, that’s only if it works — and execution is never under a coach’s complete control anyway. Villanova coach Jay Wright learned that Monday night when he instructed his players to defend the 3-point line and allow North Carolina to penetrate for a two-pointer, if need be. Wright also told them to foul if the clock dipped to five seconds, but Paige’s shot seemed to find a happy medium for the Tar Heels.
Not every coach leaves so much room for nuance. St. Thomas Aquinas coach Tobin Anderson — whose team reached the Division II NCAA Tournament this season — has his players drilled so specifically in last-second scenarios that they carry out his wishes without instruction.
“We always foul, and if you’re going to do it you have to practice it,” Anderson said. “We’ve done it so much now, we don’t even call timeout. Our guys know, if we’re up three with under 10 seconds, we’re going to foul. For them to win the game and you to lose it, a lot of things have to go wrong.”
Anderson estimated that his team had successfully executed the foul option 15-20 times in the last five seasons and won every time.
“We call it the ‘Double Chop,’ ” he said. “We go for the ball with both hands and chop the guy across the hands. You absolutely foul the guy no matter what.”
Byram Hills coach Ted Repa said he and his staff arrived at the same conclusion by accident early in the 2014-15 season when his team allowed Harrison’s Justin Stagg to tie the score on a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Byram Hills lost in overtime, and Repa and his assistants vowed they wouldn’t let it happen again.
Late in this year’s harrowing Section 1 Class A final, players were instructed to foul Tappan Zee under the same circumstances. Missed free throws prevented the Bobcats from extending a one-point lead.
Repa said the loss to Harrison led directly to his change in philosophy.
“Yes, entirely,” he admitted. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it that game and I was mad at myself. It was one of those times as a coach where you feel like you lost the game for your team.”
The Bobcats nearly beat Elmont this year in the state semifinals despite Elmont committing to fouling them late in the game. After hitting his first free throw to make it a two-point deficit, sophomore Skylar Sinon purposely fired his second shot off the rim. The officials blew an inadvertent whistle and Byram was awarded the ball because it had the possession arrow. Sinon rimmed out on a corner 3 that would’ve sent his team on to the state final had it dropped.
To coaches who believe in fouling, all of the steps Byram Hills needed to complete successfully to win — a made free throw, a missed free throw, an offensive rebound and a made basket to win or send the game to overtime — underscore why fouling with the lead in the final seconds has become so en vogue in basketball. Of course, the improbable can and will happen.
Hastings watched a four-point lead over Woodlands disappear in the final minute of its Class B quarterfinal this February despite its best intentions. Coach Bob Delle Bovi — who has coached at various high schools and colleges, including a stint as the head coach at Manhattan College — has evolved philosophically in recent years and will often foul and force the opposition to execute. However, he said the decision can depend on strengths and weaknesses. For example, does his team have forwards to grab the defensive rebound on free throws or a shooter who can make free throws at the other end?
“You have to be prepared ahead of time,” Delle Bovi said. “Am I asking my kids to do something where I know I’m putting them at a disadvantage and giving the other team an advantage?”
For similar reasons, Sondey has coached his players to play defense and try to stop the opponent in the flow of the game. He said Concordia will only foul when it has the option of explaining all the nuances to players during a timeout.
His team succeeded twice this season by fouling under those specific circumstances. Once, Concordia upset its league’s best team, Holy Family, by resorted to a very unconventional tactic: Fouling a poor free-throw shooter while leading by two points.
“I think we have players with high basketball IQ, but basketball is chaos,” Sondey said. “If they’re not put in a perfect position to succeed, anything can happen.”
And, as Monday proved, it will. Sometimes twice.