By Budd Bailey
The game of basketball has been evolving ever since James Naismith first nailed up those peach baskets to the balcony more than a century ago in Springfield, Massachusetts. Slowly but surely, the entertainment value of the game has improved dramatically over the years – to the point where it can be a thrill ride for both sides until the contest is finally decided.
But there’s an exception to the rule: the ending. Too often, the games suffer from something of an anti-climax. But when everything goes properly, the contest ends in a way that has everyone talking all the way home.
We saw an example of both on Saturday afternoon and evening at the KeyBank Center – within two hours, no less.
The problem child came first in Niagara’s win over Albany. We’ve seen it before. A team has a decent (somewhere between five and 10 points) in the final few minutes. If the trailing team plays straight basketball, it is going to lose in all probability. The only strategy left is to foul the opponents. And then foul some more. Maybe the other team will miss some free throws, and maybe the trailing team will score on most of its trips down the court – preferably with three-pointers. That’s the formula for a comeback, and once in a great while it works.
The problem, naturally, is that it is difficult to watch, as a beautifully fast game is slowed to a crawl. The Niagara-Albany matchup was a good basketball game for about 38 minutes. At that point, the Purple Eagles had a 56-48 lead. So Albany started fouling. And fouling. Let’s count down when the fouls are: 2:03 left in the game, 1:44, 1:16, 1:06, 0:52, 0:44, 0:36, 0:22, and 0:14. That’s nine fouls in the final 123 seconds – one every 14 seconds or so. By the way, both teams scored exactly 10 points in that span. Marcus Hammond had six of those for Niagara, as he finished with 20 points for the afternoon
The relatively comfortable finish was set up by a Niagara burst midway through the second half. The Purple Eagles, who had let an early 15-point first-half lead get away, turned up its defense midway through the second half. Niagara had a nine-point lead with 6:45 left.
“We had some tremendous 50-50 balls, some offensive rebounds, and we made some winning plays,” Paulus said. “It gave us a little bit of distance, and we were able to make enough plays to stay ahead.”
But even the biggest Purple Eagles fan probably was a little bored as the final couple of minutes crawled along. The usual reply to criticisms about such tactics is along the lines of “go sink the free throws, and you win the game.” But college basketball is in the entertainment business, and having endings go on forever can be bad for business.
I’m not sure what the answer is to this. Maybe some sort of super-super bonus in the form of three-to-make-two shots or a three-shot foul would help. Maybe, as a few who are freshly out of the box have suggested, we should set a target number of points (established during the game) for the winning team to hit. In other words, first team to 75 wins. At least the offenses wouldn’t crawl to a halt.
Baseball has shown the dangers of finishes that aren’t the most exciting time of a game, as extra innings often send fans home before the outcome is decided. There has to be way for college basketball to solve a similar problem.
The flip side
But on the other hand, there’s not much better than a basketball game in which the ball is in the air, and the outcome depends solely on whether it goes in or not. We had that in the second game, when Ahamadou Fofana hit a three-pointer with one second left to give a Canisius a 65-64 win.
How we got to that point was almost as interesting as the finish. The Golden Griffins came into the game on a five-game losing streak. No. 5 was a 71-43 loss at Youngstown State, as Canisius trailed, 35-17, at the half. So the likelihood of a turnaround seemed a little far-fetched.
But when the game started, Canisius stayed right with UB from the opening moments. The Griffins put up a 12-3 run during the first half to go up by seven, and then closed with 13 of the final 15 points of the half to lead by 37-25 at intermission. The Bulls were still trailing by 47-33 with less than 17 minutes left, but they went on a 17-2 rampage to take the lead with 10:25 to go. It seemed that order was about to be restored.
Instead, Canisius hung around – even taking a final 8-0 punch in the last few minutes. It still seemed like one “nice try” games when the Griffins trailed, 64-60, with 15 seconds left. Then Xzavier Long hit a lay-up to cut the lead to two, and Armon Harried (the game’s leading scorer with 20 points) drew an offensive foul on Jeenathan Williams (13 points, 14 rebounds). Canisius had the ball with 4.6 seconds left and no timeouts.
What to do? The Golden Griffins had been waiting for this moment.
“We had a play that we go over every day in practice,” Fofana said. “They put the ball in my hands, and I got a good look at the shot. This is a big one for us. We’ve been struggling, but we keep going hard and putting our trust in each other.”
Fofana’s three with a second left gives the Griffs a 65-64 win over UB. Wow. pic.twitter.com/XWPLZNu7Qx
— Budd Bailey (@WDX2BB) December 19, 2021
UB couldn’t pull off a miracle play in the last second, and Canisius was a winner. With a few seconds left, coach Reggie Witherspoon was just happy his team had picked up its level of play. But winning was a nice bit of a positive reinforcement about that message.
“I was prepared to tell them that they played really hard,” he said. “They gave a great effort, whether we won or lost. We had some struggles, but we’ve had some good times too. We had to learn how to sustain it. … This is another learning opportunity for us.”
Two different games, two wins for the “home team,” two different ways of winning. One was painful to watch, one was exhilarating.
You pay your money, and you take your chances.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)