Friday, March 3, 2000
by Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com
Anatomy of a Comeback
While everyone is talking about Brian Chase’s storm of three-pointers against La Salle on Wednesday night, and rightfully so, almost no one has given Coach Stokes and the other players credit for a perfectly-executed last two minutes.
Coming back from eleven points down with barely over two minutes to go is a feat that usually requires excellent coaching, near-perfect execution by the players, and a little help from the opposing team. When the Hokies roared back behind Chase to beat La Salle, Tech got two of those things, coaching and execution.
But Tech got very little help from La Salle along the way, and in fact, the Hokies even had a crucial questionable call go against them. And still they won, despite the odds.
Before we continue, though, here's a copy of how the last two minutes of regulation went. The info comes from HokieCentral's game recap on the Men's Hoops page:
The coaching. One of the things Dean Smith was always good at was dragging out the end of a game when his team was down. Love him or hate him, Deano could make the last minute of a ball game go on forever. Carolina often fashioned victory from defeat as opposing teams withered down the stretch and the last two minutes of a game took ten or fifteen minutes to play.
Wednesday night, Ricky Stokes told his team to start fouling early, with over two minutes to go, despite the fact that the deficit was "only" around ten points. Most coaches will wait until later to start fouling, not giving their players the opportunity to make up the deficit.
Very often, a team that has a lead like La Salle did will get into a free-throw shooting rhythm down the stretch as they make repeated trips to the line, not to mention that late in the game, the double-bonus situation is reached very quickly. This means that once you start fouling, not only will the other team start shooting the free throws well, but they’ll get two of them at a time, not one-and-one situations.
Therefore, the idea shouldn’t be to foul the other team and hope they miss their free throws, but rather, you should try to foul them, limit them to two points at most, and catch them by making three-pointers. Stokes knows this, and that’s why he had the Hokies start fouling early. He had no delusions of La Salle missing free throws. He just hoped that Brian Chase could make the three-pointers and chip away at the lead one or two points at a time.
And when you’re down by eleven points, it takes a long time to catch the other team a point or two at a time. So Stokes went to the fouling strategy early, and in so doing, set his team up perfectly to win the ball game.
But it was up to the players to carry out the strategy, which brings us to point #2.
Execution. The Hokies played a near-perfect game in the last two minutes of regulation. Chase hit four straight three-pointers, Tech missed almost no shots (and rebounded the ones they did miss), and the Hokies even stole the ball twice.
Not to mention that when ordered to foul, the Tech players fouled quickly, allowing La Salle to burn almost no time off the clock. You didn’t see La Salle players dribbling around with the ball in the last two minutes of this game. They threw it in, caught it, and got fouled immediately.
At one point, Tech’s Drew Smith scored a bucket with 1:07 to go. La Salle threw the ball in bounds, Rasual Butler caught it, and Tech fouled him … with 1:07 to go.
And on the offensive end, Tech didn’t waste time dribbling and passing around. They got the ball to Chase quickly. Overall, the Hokies simply did a phenomenal job of conserving the clock over the last two minutes. You’ll likely never see a better job of clock management if you watch basketball for another ten years.
Kudos to walk-on guard Drew Smith, who came off the bench totally cold and made two big plays down the stretch. Smith was inserted for fouling purposes (so Chase, who had four fouls, wouldn’t foul out), and he found himself still on the floor during an offensive possession. So what did he do? He picked up a loose ball in the lane and calmly put it in the bucket in traffic, amongst taller, more gifted athletes. He also had a key steal.
Tech only made two bad plays in the last two minutes. One play came when they allowed La Salle to break the Tech press and try a breakaway lay-up, which resulted in an intentional foul being called on Brian Chase (more on that later).
The other poor play came when Brendan Dunlop fouled La Salle’s Donnie Carr with 19 seconds to go and the game tied at 82. Carr is an excellent free throw shooter, and the foul was unnecessary. It was almost a fatal mistake by Dunlop, because Carr, as expected, made both free throws. Dunlop made up for his mistake by tying the game on a runner in the lane with just under ten seconds to go.
No help from La Salle … or the refs. Sure, the Explorers turned the ball over twice in the last two minutes (more precisely, Tech stole it), and they stunk in overtime, but they didn’t exactly hand the game to Tech at the end of regulation. La Salle made 10 of 13 free throws in the last 2:14 of regulation, which is usually enough to win when you’re ahead by eleven points to start.
Not only did La Salle do almost everything they could to stay ahead, but they got help from the refs, too. With 1:26 to go and La Salle leading 78-74, the Explorers broke Tech’s press and wound up in a fast break. Brian Chase fouled the La Salle shooter from behind on a lay-up attempt, and the referee called a questionable intentional foul. Chase did go for the ball, hacking the player across the hands as he tried to lay it in.
That was a near-death experience for the Hokies, because it meant that La Salle got two free throws and possession of the ball. In a worst-case scenario, La Salle could have hit both freebies and then scored a bucket to go up 82-74 or 83-74.
The La Salle shooter was shaken up by Chase’s foul, and La Salle coach Speedy Morris put Aleksandar Pavlovic on the line instead. Pavlovic barely drew iron on the first free throw, missing it badly, but made the second. Tech stole the ball on the inbounds pass, one of two steals in the last two minutes, and averted disaster. They escaped the situation with the score just 79-74.
A once-a-year game. If you watch a basketball team for an entire year, you’ll see a game like this maybe once a year, or maybe even less often. As good as it was, this comeback doesn’t match the comeback at Fordham a year ago, when Tech came back from ten points down in the last minute.
But one thing’s for sure, this game was a masterpiece by Coach Stokes and the Tech players. You don’t often see a sequence of events like what we witnessed Wednesday night. Unfortunately, just a handful of people were there to see it. The announced crowd of about 2800 was much smaller than that, perhaps numbering only 1500 to 2000, and several hundred of them left early and missed the comeback.
Too bad. Like Brian Chase said, "I don’t give up until the buzzer sounds."
Sounds like a winner to me.