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Anatomy Of A Comeback It seems that no lead is safe these days, and here are the reasons

Dec. 03, 2001
Dec. 03, 2001

Table of Contents
Dec. 3, 2001

Si Adventure

Anatomy Of A Comeback It seems that no lead is safe these days, and here are the reasons

There's little big time about St. Francis College. It's housed
in a couple of sawed-off high-rises in downtown Brooklyn, with a
campus quad that's essentially the four corners of Remsen and
Henry streets. Nonetheless, with about 14 minutes left in the
championship game of the Northeast Conference tournament last
March, the Terriers had the big time in their sights. With a
56-36 lead over Monmouth, they'd virtually secured the first
NCAA tournament berth in their history.

This is an article from the Dec. 3, 2001 issue Original Layout

For 26 minutes St. Francis had bamboozled the Hawks' Rahsaan
Johnson, an Iversonian penetrator and the conference player of
the year. Johnson found a second defender cheating toward him,
except when he drove toward the basket; then the Terriers
abandoned the helping principles in their man-to-man and
spot-welded themselves to the players they were guarding on the
wing. This kept Johnson from kicking the ball out for open
three-point shots.

No one was more mindful of protecting the perimeter than Steve
Howard, the St. Francis senior assigned to Monmouth's sniper of a
forward, Gerry Crosby. "In the first half it worked exactly the
way we wanted," says Terriers coach Ron Ganulin. "When Johnson
beat us off the dribble, we didn't let him kick it to Crosby.
Forget the score--we were happy that what we were doing was
working."

Suddenly, though, St. Francis ceased to do the things it had
done to build the lead. For long stretches Howard and Richy
Dominguez, the Terriers' two top scorers, scarcely touched the
ball. Meanwhile Howard, who had held Crosby scoreless in the
first half with cold defensive discipline, went slack.
Something--instinct, hubris, competitive pride--caused him to
leave Crosby to try to help impede Johnson's forays to the
basket, and Crosby began getting and sinking shots from the
wing. Ganulin, incredulous that the object lesson of the first
26 minutes of the game had been so quickly forgotten, yelled at
Howard during one timeout, "Don't help!"

"Well," Howard sputtered in reply, "tell them not to let him
penetrate!"

Monmouth scored 17 unrebutted points in the midst of this
bickering. As if to torture Ganulin, with 2:08 to play the Hawks
took the lead after Johnson drove toward the middle, Howard
hedged over to help, and Crosby sent a three-pointer sluicing
through the net. In losing 67-64, St. Francis didn't merely find
itself on the business end of the kind of huge emotional and
arithmetical swing that seems to characterize more and more
college basketball games nowadays. The Terriers suffered a
psychological breakdown as well. "Even when we'd miss a foul
shot," says Johnson, "we knew that they knew we were coming."

After a long, fitful off-season, Ganulin still gropes to
articulate why St. Francis collapsed. "When the engines shut off,
it's very difficult to turn them back on," he says. "We missed
layups. There were a couple of calls. Kids started to snap at
each other. All that positive energy was reversed. Players began
doing things they usually didn't do, and X's and O's went out the
window."

Ganulin has plenty of peers to commiserate with. Two days before
St. Francis's fiasco, Eastern Illinois erased a 21-point deficit
in the final 8:20 of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament title
game to defeat Austin Peay 84-83. Earlier, in January, Duke had
wiped out a 10-point lead in the final 54 seconds of regulation
at Maryland before prevailing 98-96 in overtime.

To discover why so many eye-popping reversals of fortune have
occurred of late, SI examined these cases in detail. Rule changes
provide some explanations. Foremost among them is the three-point
shot--it can fuel a rally for a team with a hot hand, but it can
also diminish a lead for a team that goes cold. The 35-second
clock and the inability of a lot of players to make clutch free
throws also make it more difficult to protect an advantage. With
30-second timeouts replacing some of the 60-second variety, it's
harder for a coach to correct a wayward team's course. Finally,
the rule, adopted in 1993, that stops the clock after every
basket in the final minute keeps hope alive.

As this season unfolds, here are other, more subtle signs to look
for when one team has a seemingly insurmountable lead over
another. Beware the trailing team that:

--Has a history of playing its opponent close. Duke and Maryland
met four times last season, and in each game the team trailing
at the half won. Of the last five games Eastern Illinois and
Austin Peay played against each other before the Ohio Valley
championship, four were decided by three points or fewer and the
fifth in double overtime. When Monmouth and St. Francis met in
the 2000 NEC tournament, Monmouth led St. Francis by nine at the
half, only to lose. In other words, for one team to run up a
huge lead on the other mocked the natural order. Given history
like that, the trailing team believes it can come back every bit
as much as the front-runner suspects its huge lead is an illusion.

--Has come back before. Earlier last season Eastern Illinois won
at Morehead State despite trailing by seven with 42 seconds
remaining. As for Duke's Miracle Minute at Maryland, it would
become such a touchstone that, after the Terrapins raced to a
22-point advantage in the first half of their national semifinal
in Minneapolis, the Blue Devils responded with a Zen calm. "We
told ourselves not to panic and got it down to 11 points at the
half," forward Mike Dunleavy says. "Then we knew we had 20
minutes to do what we had proved we could do in one minute."

--Takes advantage of a signal play. A fifth foul, whistled on
Maryland point guard Steve Blake, permitted Duke guard Jason
Williams, who had theretofore shot erratically and committed 10
turnovers, to light up Terrapins understudy Drew Nicholas.
Eastern Illinois began its long climb back when guard Kyle Hill
left a lob pass at the rim for teammate Henry Domercant, who
dunked it with a flourish. Monmouth's comeback began less with
something it did than with something St. Francis did: "Early in
their run," Hawks coach Dave Calloway recalls, "Howard took a
really bad shot."

--Has a take-charge lead guard. More people know of Williams
than of Johnson or Hill, but Monmouth and Eastern Illinois
trusted the latter two every bit as much as Duke deferred to its
floor leader. Shortly after Domercant slammed home Hill's
alley-oop pass, Eastern Illinois coach Rick Samuels ordered
center Jan Thompson to set high screens for Hill, who proceeded
to score 11 points and pass off for two more over the next three
minutes. The drive-draw-and-dish style that so many guards now
play can gouge huge chunks from a lead: In two of the comebacks
examined here, Johnson and Hill each made extra passes to find
teammates for crucial baskets, and Williams found Duke wingman
Shane Battier for a corner three-pointer that helped salt away
the Maryland game in overtime.

--Knows how to nibble away at a lead. You eat a big lead the
same way you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. As the Eastern
Illinois deficit neared its maximum, assistant coach Troy
Collier told the Panthers, "O.K., let's cut it to 10 by the
four-minute mark." From there, Domercant says, "it became a
mental thing. Instead of, Man, we're down 21, it was, We're down
10 and have four minutes to tie it. In our minds it made things
a little more feasible. And we actually got ahead of schedule."
During subsequent timeouts Collier kept resetting the short-term
goal, while another assistant, Mike Church, piped in, "Look at
their sphincter muscles! They're getting tighter!"

In practice the Monmouth coaches regularly set a defensive goal:
"Three good stops!" During second-half timeouts against St.
Francis, they said the same thing, but like the Panthers, the
Hawks' grasp exceeded their reach: Monmouth held St. Francis to
one field goal over that final 14-minute stretch.

--Knows how to stop the clock. This doesn't mean fouling the
team with the lead to get the ball back, in the old Jim Valvano,
pray-they'll-miss-their-free-throws sense. "Basketball's a sport
in which you can score without burning time off the clock," says
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "We try to get our opponents to foul
us so they stop the clock and we can score." That means first
passing the ball inside or going hard to the hole, as Williams
did during the final minute at Maryland. "We drive the ball
instead of taking the three," adds Krzyzewski, "because if we
get two points at the line, we can set up our press, and that's
another part of the equation."

--Has fallen behind early to a pressing, attacking opponent.
"The toughest thing to do is play with a lead when you've used
an aggressive style to get that lead," says Terrapins coach Gary
Williams, who declined to let the returnees from last season's
team talk about their collapses against the Blue Devils, lest
the subject stir up painful memories. "Water seeks its own level."

More than anything, comebacks and blown leads are subject to the
game's hydraulic fluid: emotion. The comeback--what looks like a
kind of zero-sum exchange between a quailing front-runner and a
surging challenger--is the natural depletion of one team's
positive energy and the just-as-inevitable restoration of the
other's as it reels in that opponent. In fact, with the game in
the balance, that transaction is hardly zero-sum at all: "For the
trailing team, it's a little bit at a time," says Calloway. "For
the team that had a big lead, it's so much, so quick."

What Calloway describes was never more obvious than during
Princeton's stunning defeat of Penn in February 1999. The
Quakers did virtually nothing wrong in jumping to a 40-13 lead
with 15:11 left in the second half and almost nothing right in
getting outscored 37-9 the rest of the way.

What's a coach to do when emotion can whipsaw from one extreme to
the other? "I tell my players that the game is never in control,
especially if you don't play with the same intensity that built
you the lead," says Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz. "Also, the game
is never out of control as long as you keep playing hard. That's
what we stress in every huddle."

Lutz's adage is one way of addressing what Joel Fish, director
of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia, calls the
essential question at the core of his field. "When the game's on
the line, how can we go from Uh-oh, here we go again to We've
got 'em right where we want 'em? College basketball produces
emotion. It just does. The goal is to better manage that
emotion, to deepen the belief system so we can go from Uh-oh to
We've got 'em." To underscore his point, Fish likes to invoke
the Chinese character chi, which can mean both crisis and
opportunity.

Ganulin isn't a Chinese character. He's a New York character.
Sitting in his tiny office overlooking the St. Francis gym, he
wonders whether the Terriers will ever again have as good a
chance to get to the NCAAs. Yet he also knows that a game of ebbs
and flows sometimes produces tidal surges, forces of nature that
no coach can stay, and he finds some solace in that. "What could
I have done?" he says. "If I knew what I could have done, I would
have done it."

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Duke wiped out a 10-point lead in 54 seconds in its epic comeback against Maryland.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Eastern Illinois (in white) erased a 21-point deficit to win the Ohio Valley Conference final.COLOR PHOTO: BEVERLY SCHAEFER Total turnaround In 1999 Penn went up 40-13 on Princeton, undid all it had done and ended up losing 50-49.