When we think of thrilling endings to NCAA tournament games, we think of Cinderellas stunning the world with unbelievable buzzer-beaters. But in one of the most unpredictable tournaments in recent memory, it’s fitting that the most surprising ending to a game thus far in March Madness featured absolutely nothing.
In the first Elite Eight game of 2018, Kansas State chose to foul while trailing by 14 points to Loyola with 34 seconds left, refusing to let the dream of a Final Four berth die. In the second Elite Eight game, Florida State chose to simply let the clock expire trailing Michigan by just four points with 12 seconds remaining, giving up in a situation that didn’t seem worthy of surrender:
Michigan, by the way, shoots 66.1 percent from the line as a team—326th of the 351 teams in college basketball. They’d missed four free throws in the final two minutes of the game alone. But apparently, hoping they missed two more was too improbable to risk.
The oddness began earlier: Florida State trailed 55-52 with 1:17 to go. The Seminoles fouled Michigan 11 seconds later, and Michigan missed a free throw in the 1-and-1. Wolverines guard Zavier Simpson missed the front end, allowing Florida State to sprint upcourt trailing by three. Seminoles guard PJ Savoy missed a 3 with 58 seconds remaining. And then, the Seminoles … waited. It took 18 seconds for FSU to decide to intentionally foul Michigan—playing defense for 30 seconds would have made sense and immediately fouling would have made sense, but waiting 18 seconds to intentionally foul did not.
Eventually, the Seminoles trailed 58-54 with 12 seconds left. Down four with 12 seconds is a tough situation—you’d need to hit a field goal, hope for missed free throws, rebound the ball, and then repeat the process in rapid succession. The game was still in reach, or so we all thought. The Seminoles, however, did not. They didn’t even foul. They just allowed Michigan to end the game.
There have been more dramatic endings to tournament games, sure—like Michigan’s 35-foot off-balance heave to beat Houston. But more surprising, more unusual? I can’t say I’ve seen a team just give up in a four-point ballgame with more than 10 seconds to go the way the Seminoles just did. And with a Final Four berth at stake? Stunning, especially considering Michigan’s poor free throw shooting late.
CBS reporter Dana Jacobson interviewed Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton after the game, and he seemed bewildered by the fact that Jacobson believed a four-point game was still in play:
It’s possible that Hamilton genuinely didn’t believe his team could win down four points with 12 seconds left. But FSU’s recent behavior makes that seem unlikely: FSU fouled down six points with 15 seconds to go in the ACC tournament; down nine points with 14 seconds to go against Clemson in February; down 16 points with 24 seconds to go against Notre Dame in February; and down six points with seven seconds to go against Boston College in January. You’d think with the season on the line, FSU would be even more likely to foul than in these unrescuable regular situations.
The line on the game was Michigan at -4.5; a foul might have allowed Michigan to cover. Gamblers across the nation probably expressed disbelief that Florida State opted not to foul—meanwhile, Hamilton expressed disbelief that anybody thought his team should have fouled. It’s also possible that Hamilton legitimately didn’t know the score, and didn’t know that a win might be hypothetically possible. Disbelieving in your team is bad; point-shaving is actually illegal. But completely lacking situational awareness in Florida State’s biggest basketball game in 25 years? That’s possibly worst of all.