West Virginia almost played a game that was ugly enough to beat Gonzaga. The Mountaineers shot just 26.7 percent from the field on Thursday, but grabbed 20 offensive rebounds, drew 26 fouls against the Bulldogs, and forced 16 turnovers. (Actually a bit low for WVU, as it entered the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament forcing an average of 20.1.) And yet the no. 4 seed Mountaineers were down just three points to the no. 1 seed in the West region, with a chance to tie it up on the final possession.
This is that final possession:
Jevon Carter attempted a tightly contested 3-pointer from the right corner, which he airballed. The Mountaineers grabbed the rebound, and then Carter attempted a deeper, even more tightly contested 3, which somehow hit the rim. After WVU’s Nathan Adrian secured the board and dished the ball back to Carter, he dribbled for about 11 seconds before beginning to attempt a 37-footer, realizing he was too heavily guarded, and passing to Daxter Miles Jr., who flung the ball hopelessly at the rim after the clock had expired. Gonzaga prevailed 61–58 to advance to the Elite Eight.
West Virginia started the play with enough time to get a two and then foul Gonzaga to extend the game. Instead Carter went iso three times and tried to take three increasingly difficult 3s. Twice he missed horribly; the third time he couldn’t even get off his shot.
I attempted to diagram the play that head coach Bob Huggins drew up:
Jokes aside, Huggins didn’t draw up a play here. He had called his last timeout with 50 seconds to go, so no whiteboards could be used.
But a play was actually being run. As you can see at the beginning of the clip, West Virginia’s Adrian and Lamont West come to the top of the key to set screens for Carter. When Carter turns down the screens and goes right, Adrian screens for his fellow screener before popping out to the 3-point line. WVU had a design to get Carter open, which didn’t work. It had a design to get West open, which also didn’t work. It did get Adrian open, but rather than pass to him, Carter opted to launch from deep himself.
At that point, the Mountaineers were hopeless. They didn’t have a timeout, so they couldn’t regroup and draw up something else. In the waning seconds, Adrian and West again came to the top of the key to create a double screen for Carter, but that wasn’t going to work so far from the basket with so little time remaining.
The Bulldogs deserve some credit here. Gonzaga has the no. 1 defense in college basketball, allowing just 86.1 points per 100 possessions this season. Nobody else in the nation allows fewer than 90 points per 100 possessions. If we adjust for opponents, as Ken Pomeroy’s ratings do, it’s still no. 1 in the country by about 1.5 points per 100 possessions. Although Gonzaga is an up-tempo team on offense, it’s merciless with its half-court defense, thriving on outstanding athleticism and length. West Virginia made this game ugly, but the Zags can survive ugly.
It’s also worth mentioning that teams running out of timeouts has been a theme in this NCAA tournament, which has yet to feature a buzzer-beater. Vanderbilt called its last timeout with over seven minutes remaining in its first-round matchup against Northwestern, and committed a ludicrously dumb foul while leading by one and then hoisted a 30-footer on its final possession when it trailed by the same margin. Wichita State didn’t have any timeouts left in the closing seconds of its second-round showdown against Kentucky, and ran isolation plays that got blocked on the game’s final two possessions.
Two years ago the NCAA took a timeout away from coaches, a move that has indisputably improved the sport’s pace-of-play issues. (Although there are still sometimes seven-minute stoppages in play so officials can review simple calls.) It also ushered in more improvisation in the game’s final seconds. Improvisation can be a beautiful thing; it can also be hideous.
West Virginia might have run a play on Thursday night. But just any play isn’t going to beat a team that’s as defensively sound as Gonzaga. You need to try something special, or else it could look like you tried nothing at all.