Foul while up three, or don’t foul while up three?
College basketball coaches — both real ones and armchair ones, like me — have to make that choice whenever they’re up three points and playing defense in the final few seconds of a game. The Gonzaga Bulldogs faced that decision against South Carolina in a national semifinal on Saturday. The Bulldogs decided to foul.
Here’s the context:
Gonzaga led by 14 points about midway through the second half, but South Carolina mounted a 16-0 run in just more than three minutes to take the lead. Gonzaga responded with a 7-0 run of its own to go back ahead, and the Zags and Gamecocks basically hopped on a see-saw after that. Gonzaga had a chance to ice the game with about 10 seconds left, but South Carolina got a stop to create one last chance.
Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins fouled South Carolina star Sindarius Thornwell (on the floor) with 3.5 seconds left and a three-point lead, sending Thornwell to the line for two shots. It wasn’t clear if Perkins meant to foul Thornwell, because he looked furious after the call. It was his fifth of the night, knocking him out of the game. But Gonzaga coach Mark Few indicated to CBS’ Tracy Wolfson after the game that the foul was deliberate.
Thornwell entered the night as nearly a 40-percent three-point shooter. It stands to reason that he had a better chance of making a contested triple than South Carolina did of making one free throw, intentionally missing and rebounding the second, and then scoring a game-tying basket. There wasn’t enough time left on the clock for any other outcome to be all that plausible, and it turned out none was.
Thornwell made his first free throw and missed his second. (We’ll learn later, probably, if he missed it on purpose.) South Carolina fouled Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie with two seconds left. The Zags were up, 75-73. Tillie made both free throws, effectively putting the game out of reach. The Cocks didn’t get a shot to tie it.
It’s hard to get these decisions right. There have been empirical arguments made before that fouling up three isn’t the right play in the college game. But in this case, South Carolina’s best player had the season in his hands, and the Zags’ decision to foul him took that power away from him. It’s hard to argue with it.