Up three with less than 10 seconds to go in a basketball game and the other team has the ball — to foul or not to foul? An age-old question debated by coaches, players, commentators and fans alike.
By fouling you send the other team to the line for foul shots and the best they can do is come within one point, but you risk them getting an offensive rebound or another possession. By playing straight up defense you risk the other team tying the game on a 3-pointer but the worst case scenario is a tie.
With 11 seconds left in the NESCAC championship game on March 1, the Tufts men’s basketball team had the ball trailing Colby 74–71. Colby elected not to foul.
There is no greater or more entertaining form of theater than team sports. Each possession is a scene, and the players, coaches and referees are better actors than anyone on Broadway. Every momentum shift is a plot twist, and halftime provides the perfect intermission for audience members to relieve their bladders and get some popcorn. Every once in a while the show is so good that the sum of every player’s actions, every coaching decision and every foul call leads to one culminating moment where the entire audience rises from its seats and witnesses a moment of excellence that single-handedly alters the show’s conclusion.
That’s what happened during the men’s NESCAC Championship. Everyone at Tufts knows about graduating senior and co-captain Eric Savage’s game-tying 3-point prayer, but they probably don’t know that Savage wasn’t supposed to take the shot.
In an interview with Savage after the game, he said that coach Bob Sheldon drew up a play to try to get rising senior guard and sharpshooter Brennan Morris open for a 3 in the corner. If the play went according to plan, Savage would have received a dribble hand-off from rising junior guard Tyler Aronson and made a cross-court pass to Morris in the corner.
Savage did receive the dribble hand-off from Aronson, but the timing with Morris was off.
“I wasn’t really ready to throw a pass when he was open,” Savage said. “I tried to make sort of a one-handed attempt at it, and the ball sort of slipped out towards half court. I chased it down … just kind of turned and hoisted one up.”
You know the rest.
When a sporting event comes down to one moment, there are infinite “what ifs” to consider. What if Colby had fouled up three? What if Savage hadn’t lost control of the ball? What if Colby’s Matt Hanna had missed one of his free throws the possession before? If any of these events or any of the other hundreds of plays in the game had occurred even slightly differently, then we would never have seen the shot.
But everything did line up perfectly. And that’s what makes sports the greatest form of theater there is.