Tuesday, April 8, 2008

C(h)alm in the Clutch: Kansas Defeats Memphis in OT, 75-68

Add one more name--and one more highlight--to NCAA Championship game lore: Mario Chalmers' three pointer with 2.1 seconds left enabled Kansas to force overtime and ultimately emerge with a 75-68 victory over Memphis. Chalmers, who finished with 18 points, three rebounds, three assists and four steals, was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Darrell Arthur (20 points, 10 rebounds) helped Kansas to control the paint, while Brandon Rush (12 points, six rebounds) and Sherron Collins (11 points, six assists, four rebounds, three steals) also made major contributions. Memphis stars Chris Douglas-Roberts (22 points, one rebound, one assist) and Derrick Rose (18 points, eight assists, six rebounds) played well overall but they both missed late free throws that could have iced the win. Joey Dorsey scored the first basket of the game on a strong post move but he produced just six points and two rebounds before fouling out near the end of regulation.

Memphis jumped out to a 9-3 lead but the Jayhawks used their superior inside game to go up 24-18; Kansas shot 12-18 in the paint during the first half. Rose converted a three point play at the 16:39 mark but did not score again for the rest of the first half. Douglas-Roberts scored 13 first half points, accounting for nearly half of Memphis' offense as Kansas enjoyed a 33-28 halftime advantage.

The Tigers scored on their first possession of the second half, then forced a turnover that led to an Antonio Anderson three pointer, tying the score before the Jayhawks even had a chance to attempt a shot. Neither team led by more than three points until Rose's jumper at the 7:35 mark put Memphis up 51-47. Prior to that point, CBS' Billy Packer repeatedly criticized Rose for not being more aggressive, at one point declaring, "Rose is being too easy to guard by giving up the ball when there is no pressure on him." Packer later conceded that perhaps he should give the Kansas defenders some credit for how well they guarded Rose. Douglas-Roberts caused so many problems for Kansas that the Jayhawks resorted to a box and one defense with Chalmers hawking him wherever he went. That strategic shift quieted Douglas-Roberts but gave Rose room to operate and he responded by scoring 10 straight Memphis points in a four minute stretch, helping the Tigers to take a 56-49 lead; for a moment Rose was credited with 11 points in that run but a tough fadeaway jumper that he hit to beat the shot clock was reviewed and correctly ruled to be a two pointer. Kansas Coach Bill Self responded to Rose's heroics by switching to a 1-2-2 zone that focused on containing Rose at the top of the key. It seemed like these adjustments would be in vain, though, because Memphis led 60-51 with just 2:12 remaining.

Arthur made a jumper to cut the margin to 60-53. After a Kansas timeout, Collins stole Memphis' inbounds pass, fed the ball inside, received a kickout pass and drained a three pointer. After the game, the ESPN talking heads mentioned a lot of things that happened down the stretch but left out that sequence; of course, that was a huge play because now it was only a two possession game instead of a three possession game and therefore the upcoming free throws would be even more pressure packed. The one Achilles' Heel for Memphis during the season was free throw shooting. The Tigers seemed to solve that problem during the NCAA Tournament but, as Packer pointed out, it is a lot different to make free throws when you are up 20 than when the game is close. At first, this did not seem to be a problem; Douglas-Roberts sank both ends of a one and one to make the score 62-56. Then Dorsey committed a foolish foul on Chalmers 20 feet from the basket. Not only did this allow Kansas to creep closer with the clock stopped but Dorsey fouled out on that play. Chalmers made both free throws and from that point on things went south for Memphis. Douglas-Roberts missed the front end of a one and one and an Arthur jumper cut the Memphis lead to 62-60 with 1:00 left. In a little over a minute Kansas had gone from the brink of death--down nine--to not even having to foul to get the ball back. After Douglas-Roberts missed a shot, Collins went coast to coast but was unable to convert the potentially tying layup. Now Kansas had to foul. Rose went to the free throw line with 10 seconds left and a chance to all but ensure victory. Instead he missed the first shot and made the second, leaving the door open for Kansas.

What happened next led to a heated debate between Bobby Knight, Digger Phelps, Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas on ESPN after the game. Memphis did not call a timeout, Collins raced down court with the ball, almost lost it and then passed to Chalmers, who drained the tying three pointer with 2.1 seconds left. Memphis again eschewed calling a timeout and Robert Dozier missed a shot from half court as time expired. Bilas adamantly insisted that Memphis Coach John Calipari should have called a timeout after the second free throw to make sure that his players committed a foul once the clock got below five seconds; Bilas added that Calipari should have called a timeout after Chalmers' shot to try to set up a good inbounds play. No one disputed what Bilas said about calling a timeout after Chalmers' shot but Phelps maintained that no timeout was necessary after the free throws because teams work on late game fouling situations in practice all the time. Vitale said that with a championship on the line you can't take a chance about whether or not the players know what they are supposed to do. Knight agreed with Vitale and Bilas, adding that he would have called a timeout and told each player exactly who he was going to guard and what his responsibilities were in different situations. Phelps reiterated his original argument but Knight answered that they could sit there until Christmas and he would not change his mind, which pretty much ended the discussion.

In his postgame remarks, Calipari maintained that his players knew that they were supposed to foul and that they tried to foul but one player slipped and another player made some contact but the referees did not deem it to be a foul. Looking at replays of those fateful 10 seconds, Bilas contended that Rose made a point of avoiding making any contact with Collins as he dribbled the ball up the court, which of course contradicts what Calipari said. At first I agreed with Bilas in this regard but looking at the play a few more times it seems like Rose tried to foul Collins at first but only when the referee did not call it and Collins stumbled did Rose put his hands up in the universal "I did not foul him" gesture; Rose perhaps felt that time would run out and with Collins losing his balance there was no need to foul him. When CBS' cameras cut to Calipari at the end of regulation he very clearly indicated that Rose had fouled Collins and Calipari asked why the foul was not called.

As Hubie Brown often says during NBA telecasts, the decision whether or not to foul when you are up three with only seconds remaining depends on a coach's philosophy; some coaches believe in forcing the opponent to make a free throw, miss a free throw, control the offensive rebound and score, while other coaches simply believe in playing good defense. Fouling sounds like a good strategy but it can backfire, too, if the foul is committed too late, while the player is in the act of shooting. I think that deciding whether or not to foul depends a lot on the kind of team you have and the kind of team your opponents have; if your players are experienced enough and savvy enough to deliver the foul in the right way and at the right time so that it is not committed in the act of shooting then that is a good way to go. However, if your players may commit the foul too soon--enabling the opponent to also foul and get the ball back--or too late (resulting in a three point play or even, a la Larry Johnson versus the Pacers years ago, a four point play) then it is better to just play good defense. Also, if the opposing team does not have a lot of good three point shooters then straight up defense may be the best way to go.

The added wrinkle in the Memphis-Kansas game is the issue of whether or not Calipari should have called a timeout. It is really not fair to judge that from the outside; only he and his players know what the team has practiced all season long regarding such situations, though I tend to agree with Knight, Vitale and Bilas that in such an important game it makes sense to remind the players what to do even if they have practiced it previously. I would expect an NBA team to know its coach's philosophy in this situation but when you are dealing with college kids it is probably better to be safe than sorry.

Bilas' point that Memphis should have called a timeout with 2.1 seconds left rather than inbounding the ball is certainly correct. Of course, Bilas knows a lot about what can happen in such situations because he was an assistant at Duke when Grant Hill threw the long baseball pass that Christian Laettner caught and converted into a game-winning jumper versus Kentucky in one of the most famous plays in NCAA history.

Not surprisingly, after squandering so many chances to win in regulation, Memphis came out flat in overtime and never led. Collins got a steal and fed Rush for a layup to open the scoring in the extra period, a Chalmers lob to Arthur for a dunk made the score 67-63 and then a Darnell Jackson layup put Kansas up 69-63 at the 2:38 mark. Douglas-Roberts sandwiched a pair of free throws and a three pointer around a Rush layup but it was too little, too late. Chalmers and Collins each made a pair of free throws to close out the scoring and it was time to hand out the trophy and cue up "One Shining Moment."

The thin margin between winning and losing is almost painful to watch, let alone experience; as Calipari described it after the game, he and his team thought that they were 10 seconds away from celebrating a championship. Instead, Chalmers makes a great shot, a shot that literally altered many people's lives forever. It is easy to search for simple explanations and to criticize Calipari's coaching or the performance of certain players but would Calipari really have been any smarter or would his players really have been any more clutch if Chalmers' shot had rolled out or if Collins had lost control of the ball and not been able to pass it to Chalmers? There is no simple answer, no sound bite to adequately explain or summarize this game. All that can be said is that two great teams fought down to the wire and it took an overtime to decide the outcome. It is a cliche to say that it is a shame that one team had to lose but unless you are a diehard fan of one of these teams you certainly understood the full meaning of that sentiment when the final buzzer sounded.

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