Thank you, Gonzaga. It was as if you read my angst-riddled mind on Saturday night.
With about 10 seconds remaining in the national semifinal, the Zags led South Carolina by three points and had to make one last defensive stop. And before the Gamecocks could get off a shot, Josh Perkins fouled Sindarius Thornwell. It was a floor foul, which meant Thornwell had to go to the line for two shots. He made the first and missed the second one on purpose. Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie grabbed the rebound and made two free throws at the other end to end the game. Gonzaga won, 77-73. It will play North Carolina tonight for the national championship.
It was Perkins’s foul of Thornwell that got me, because I feel it in my bones every time I watch a basketball team as it tries to protect a three-point lead in the waning seconds of regulation or overtime. It’s a reflex. And it dates back to March 20, 1988.
One of March Madness’s lesser-known but most impactful buzzer-beaters happened that day. Well, okay, it was impactful for me because I was 12 years old and obsessed with Pitt basketball and I remain convinced Pitt would have won the national title that year but, no, but the Panthers didn’t foul Vanderbilt’s Barry Goheen while up three at the end of the game. Instead, they let him dribble up the floor to take a game-tying three, and oh shit now I’m going to find the play on YouTube and make a GIF and drop it in here and watch it in a continuous loop and get all bummed out again and damn it to hell why, Pitt, why?
You don’t need me to tell you that Vanderbilt went on to win in overtime. This was a second-round NCAA game. Vanderbilt was a No. 7 seed, Pitt a No. 2 seed. Kansas, a No. 6 seed, would defeat Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16, before going on to win it all. But that was one badass Pitt team. The Panthers were ranked in the top five for nearly the entire season. Jerome Lane annihilated a backboard. Pitt won the Big East’s regular-season title outright, clinching it with a bruising one-point win against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in the season finale. All year, it felt like Pitt was supposed to get to the Final Four; senior guard Demetreus Gore even made a rap video about it. Alas, nope.
After the game, Pitt head coach Paul Evans said at his presser that guard Darrelle Porter was supposed to foul Goheen. Told what Evans had said, Pitt’s players—to a man—turned right around and flamed Evans. Here was senior forward Charles Smith, per the Associated Press, with the not-so-subtle burn:
“No one knew what to do, that was the problem. No one knew. There’s no way we should have lost a game that we were leading by three with five seconds left.
“I’m not putting the blame on anybody. It’s a group. But anybody who knows basketball knows where the fault lies.”
Porter said there was so much confusion in the Pitt huddle beforehand he had no clue what he was supposed to do. Gore was more succinct: “He was never told to foul.” John Calipari, forever a Yinzer, was an assistant coach on that Pitt team. Many years later, Lane told ESPN that in the huddle, Calipari wanted to foul, but that Evans told Calipari “to shut the hell up and sit down.”
Goheen has since become a totem of Pitt basketball misery. Sean Miller, the Arizona head coach who was the point guard for that ’88 Pitt team, has been known to mutter Goheen’s name in disgust around this time of year. “I look at almost every NCAA tournament through that lens, of never wanting the team that I’m a part of, as a coach now, to have that feeling,” Miller said just three weeks ago. Ironically, when Miller was coaching at Xavier in 2007, his team lost a second-round tourney game to Ohio State after not fouling while up three at the end of regulation. After Xavier busted through and got to a Sweet 16 the following year, Goheen sent Miller a congratulatory letter in which he offered to buy him a drink one day.
Remember the Mario Chalmers three-pointer, the one that allowed Kansas to tie Memphis in the 2008 NCAA title game before the Jayhawks went on to win in overtime? Remember who the Memphis coach was? Yup. John Calipari. Pitt really does infect everything.
It would seem self-evident that putting a team on the line for two foul shots eliminates the possibility of a game-tying three. But the trailing team still has a chance to tie by making one foul shot, missing the second, and grabbing a rebound and scoring. Fouling also extends the game, and creates the possibility of giving the trailing team additional possessions—enough even to win it in regulation. And there’s always the chance that fouling in the act of shooting could give the trailing team a chance to tie the game with three foul shots, or to create a possible four-point play.
Opinions from basketball experts have often varied, and even the math is inconclusive: Two detailed studies (here and here) have shown that there is no statistical difference between fouling and not fouling. But those studies acknowledge a quantitative blind spot: There are too many variables to consider depending on how much time is remaining.
“It really depends on the situation,” college basketball statistical guru Ken Pomeroy told me. “The reason it’s usually a close call is that fouling can bring the regulation loss into play, and even though that’s rare, in the long run it makes a difference.
“If one is going to foul, it helps to do it with under four seconds left, as Gonzaga did, since that reduces the possibility for an ‘insta-loss.’”
As it was, the situation was just right for Gonzaga. Perkins fouled Thornwell with 3.5 seconds remaining. Much to my relief, the Zags didn’t get Barry Goheen’d.