Photo via Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review
For any basketball fan, it’s the type of nail-biting, game-deciding situation that leaves you screaming at your TV. Your favorite team just scored a big basket to put them up by three, 10 seconds left. What should the defense do? Defend the play, and run the risk of a game-tying three? Or should they foul, forcing free throws and a maximum of two points?
These are the age-old questions that have polarized some of basketball’s greatest minds. There’s Team Rihanna and Team Beyonce, Team Edward and Team Jacob and now, there’s Team Defend and Team Foul.
The most prominent display of a defend or foul dilemma (maybe of the last decade) occurred on the basketball’s biggest stage in the Final Four matchup between powerhouse Gonzaga Bulldogs and cinderella South Carolina Gamecocks with the Zags up 75-72.
After the Gamecocks managed to cross the mid-court line, Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins gave the strategic foul with 3.5 seconds left, sending Thornwell to the line for two shots.
Thornwell stepped up and nailed the first free throw. With very little time left on the clock, Thornwell had no choice but to intentionally miss the second, in hopes for a fellow Gamecock to grab the rebound and put it back in for two points to send the game to overtime. However, Gonzaga freshmen center Killian Tillie grabbed the board and was fouled. Tillie would go on to hit two throws, giving Gonzaga a four-point lead, effectively ending the game.
Gonzaga’s defensive sequence was a defend or foul situation executed to perfection.
Perkins picked the right moment to give the foul. There was not enough time left (3.5 seconds) for South Carolina to have a chance to gain another possession and Thornwell was handling the ball about two feet outside the three point line, which made him unlikely to begin a shooting motion and draw a three-shot foul.
However, in the heat of the moment, there was a divide in the Zags huddle about the play call, as many players were uneasy about Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s call to foul. “I was screaming at my teammates to foul because I saw they weren’t fouling,” said Gonzaga starting point guard Nigel Williams-Goss in an interview.
Although Few has been one of very few coaches to be a proponent of fouling, he too was torn by the decision at hand.
Few pointed out, choosing to foul leads a team to run the risk of not obtaining the rebound off the intentionally missed second free throw, giving the opposing team another possession to either tie the game or win the game with a three. This is the nightmare scenario that often scares coaches away from fouling and instead electing to play out the final defensive possession.
However, a player knocking down a clutch three-pointer is much more likely than the team grabbing an offensive board off an intentional miss after a foul.
So is fouling the right move?
“I would pressure the ball and slow them [the offensive team down by three] down and foul after they get over half court,” said Vassar basketball player Steve Palecki. “Limits them from tying the game with a three but necessary to rebound on the free throws for this plan to work.”
One does not have to look at the numbers to recognize that defending often turns sour for the defensive team more often than fouling.
Recall the 2008 NCAA national championship game, where Memphis choose to defend, resulting in Kansas knocking down a clutch three-pointer to tie and send the game to overtime.
Kansas would eventually go on to win. But can anyone recall any game in which fouling under six seconds actually resulted in an overtime?
Evidence goes to show, when in doubt, just foul.