by Adam Sobsey
Not really so in basketball and football and other sports, which tend to move on a chronological line, forward from 0:00 to to the last tick of the clock. Yes, things that happen early can stand out in hindsight, and sometimes it is necessary to look back at some first-half event in order to gain a real understanding of the ultimate outcome; but as a general rule, timebound games move forward—as they are essentially designed to do—marking off minutes and racking up points on a march towards the final tally. Clock sports are forward-marching. Baseball is backward-looking.
Last night's thrilling Florida State victory over Duke, on a tie-breaking, buzzer-beating three-pointer from the wing by Michael Snaer, has some of the narrative feel of a baseball game in its overall makeup: it seems to have been decided, at base, by two plays. These two plays were connected by an ironic and almost eerie temporal symmetry.
It was a very close game. The largest lead by either team was nine points. Duke had that advantage after Austin Rivers hit his second consecutive step-back three-pointer with one minute remaining in the first half. The Blue Devils then got the ball back after Mason Plumlee throttled a Bernard James layup attempt. They tried to find a good look for a quick shot to set up a 2-for-1, but the Seminoles clamped down on defense, and Rivers was forced to take another three-point shot, this one very long, from way above the top of the key.
It bounced off the front of the rim, skied high into the air as the shot-clock buzzer sounded... and dropped through the net—swish—for another crowd-rousing three. Now Duke led 35-23, with eight seconds to go: a commanding, double-digit margin to take into the locker room at the half.
But not so fast. One of the referees—forgive me, I don't know which one; I don't recognize them by face yet—ruled that the ball had touched either the camera mounted atop the backboard or the suspension cable that helps hold the goal in place. It wasn't quite clear to me which one, although I was sitting just a few feet from the referee who made the call at a distance of about 30 feet from the basket. It was loud in there, and he was mostly just pointing up above the backboard. (This same referee had waved off a Florida State shot earlier in the half, on the same equipment-interference call, from a similar distance.) Whatever the ball hit—if it hit it at all—it barely grazed. The home crowd (and bench) expressed dismay.
And then there was a weird—and ultimately fatal—final beat to the first half. Seth Curry committed a foul just past the timeline with four seconds left. Almost exactly four seconds later, Snaer scooped up a loose ball (Tyler Thornton had poked it away from Deividas Dulkys) and awkwardly heaved up, as the buzzer sounded, what Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski would later call a "flyer" from the left wing. The ugly-looking thing glanced off the glass and went right through the net.
So instead of 35-23—with Duke holding possession of the ball to start the second half—it was 32-26.
Whole different ballgame. And, kind of, the whole game.
Now Krzyzewski made sure to say that the Rivers/Snaer sequence at the end of the first half wasn't the reason Florida State won. He was both gracious enough to compliment the Seminoles for their excellent play, and also shrewd enough to use the word "flyer" to describe Snaer's first-half-ending three, thereby letting reporters know that he was aware of the luck involved in giving FSU its momentum going into the break—luck compounded by the good-luck-turned-bad-luck of Rivers's equipment-grazing no-basket seconds earlier.
Still, "there's not one play" Krzyzewski said, that he would have pointed to as decisive. "You execute, they execute," he said. "It was as competitive a game as you could have." And then he added, "Come on," as though to say, "Do you really expect me to find fault with my team?" We all saw what happened. Games scarcely get closer.
Thus, all other things being equal, which they basically were, it's possible to make the case that one 11-second sequence decided the game because the remaining 39:49 was a draw not only in score but in effort, in quality of play, in intensity—in pretty much everything, in fact. This was a prizefight (Austin Rivers echoed that metaphor in a postgame interview), with the teams trading heavy punches from the first to the last. It was a pleasure to watch, with intoxicating breathless sequences up and down the court.
Example: Just under 11 minutes to play. Score tied at 50. Miles Plumlee misses a jumper, but Seth Curry grabs the offensive rebound. Seconds later, Curry misses a three-pointer. Florida State runs out on the break, but Curry races back and steals a pass into the lane for a turnover. Back it goes: long outlet pass to Tyler Thornton, whose layup is blocked from behind, superbly, by Bernard James. But Andre Dawkins is trailing, one-times the ball through the hoop and is fouled by Ian Miller. Official timeout, crowd going nuts.
And why not pick up from here, because another critical sequence ensues. After the official timeout, Dawkins hits the and-1 free throw. A Ryan Kelly steal-and-dunk makes it 55-50. Seminoles head coach Leonard Hamilton has to call a timeout to quiet the crowd, but there's another turnover on Florida State's next possession—the second in a row by center Xavier Gibson—which leads to a Kelly three-pointer. It's Kelly's third straight make after an 0-5 first half; he has scored eight points in less than two minutes; Duke, which shot a dismal 31 percent in the first half, is starting to heat up, it seems; and they have extended their lead back out to eight points, 58-50, with under 10 minutes left to play.
But then Xavier Gibson, the two-turnover goat, atones. He draws a foul on Kelly in the paint and makes both free throws. 58-52. (It is worth noting here that, after Gibson made the first, Krzyzewski—for the second time in three games between an opposing player's free-throw attempts, took it upon himself to rise to his feet and exhort his quiet Cameron crowd to start making noise. What is with the Crazies?)
On the next possession, Rivers forces a layup—contact, but there was a lot of contact that did not get whistles last night—and on Florida State's nest possession, Gibson finds himself standing with the ball, unguarded, at the three-point line on the left side. Gibson, a 6-foot-11 center, has taken 12 three-point shots this season, missing 10 of them. Decides, what the hell, anyway. Swish.
58-55, Duke. Game back on.
Duke actually struck back on an Andre Dawkins three-pointer a little less than a minute later, but the intervening scoreless possessions by each team had slowed Duke's momentum. The Blue Devils had a chance to push it back to eight points again after Gibson missed a jumper, but Rivers missed a three-pointer on the next possession. Fourteen seconds later, Snaer sliced to the basket for a layup, making it 61-57.
An interesting, and revealing, thing happened next. Duke brought the ball back up the floor and Krzyzewski called timeout. He knew, even though 6:45 remained on the clock, that each possession was going to be precious from here on out, and he wanted to set up a play.
It would be pointless to keep going here; there is no way a written account can capture the intensity of the final 6:45 of the game. (In baseball, you can easily skip ahead or around; not so in basketball.) I give the above summary in order to give a representative sample of the sort of fluid, tit for tat, punch-counterpunch, all's fair, up-and-down narrative grip the game had. This was, until Snaer's smart-bomb of a buzzer-beater, a 73-73 dead heat.
Which is why it seemed to have been decided, in retrospect, by the arresting (literally; the game stopped for some moments while the refs conferred about Rivers' negated three-pointer) turnabout at the end of the first half.
The game's remarkable final sequence deserves some scrutiny. Duke trailed, 73-71 after Gibson made the second of two free throws with 17 seconds remaining. It was no surprise to see the Blue Devils get the ball into the hands of Rivers, the team's best (perhaps only) playmaker. Sure enough, Rivers blew right past Dulkys for a layup—this time correctly choosing not to make a pass to Dawkins in the corner; Dawkins's man had sagged back on him. Rivers was in fact fouled by James, although the hard midair bump, which sent Rivers to the floor, went uncalled, as did many fouls last night. As a measure of the physicality of the game, though, note that despite the permissive refereeing there were still 35 fouls called: 18 on Florida State, 17 on Duke.
73-all after the Rivers layup, 4.9 seconds left. That is plenty of time to get down the court—in fact, all you need is 4.8, as this famous photo-finish proves.
What happens next, unlikely as it is, involves no luck whatsoever—it's the opposite of Snaer's first-half ender. As head coach Hamilton said after the game, they practice for situations like these. Every team does, of course. Hamilton joked that it went down "just like I drew it up," letting us know that he didn't draw it up at all, of course. ("We didn't have time to run what we normally do," Hamilton added.) The skill-not-luck part of this isn't about executing a set play. It's about something much more important than that: poise, which comes from experience, and from the good coaching that happens not in the huddle but when no one is looking, in afternoon practices.
If I'm reading the play-by-play properly, Florida State had one timeout remaining after Rivers's shot. But they wisely did not call it, preventing Duke from setting up a defensive scheme (and Hamilton had praised Duke's total defensive scheme, which shut down much of the Seminoles' perimeter game)..
Instead, Ian Miller immediately inbounds the ball to Luke Loucks, who played a good game at point guard for Florida State. Loucks is unguarded, just a few feet over the baseline, and turns and dribbles up the court. Seth Curry comes up to pick him up, but just as he does, Bernard James sets a screen about 10 feet shy of the timeline. The clock is at 2.9 seconds, and for the next 0.9 seconds—these are tiny slivers of time—Loucks is unguarded as he zips past midcourt and within about 40 feet of the basket.
There are exactly two seconds left when Loucks passes the ball to Snaer on the right wing. It's amazing that Loucks has the presence of the mind here not to shoot the ball: He's open, has a clear, head-on look at the basket, and the clock is two seconds from, you know, expiring. I would guess that the majority of basketball players in the world, from kids on playgrounds to NBA veterans, would go ahead and launch a 40-footer here. And why not, in this situation? Loucks has nothing to lose. The score is tied. The worst outcome is overtime, and Duke has three players with four fouls each.
Yet Loucks, a 21-year-old graduate student (?!), has the wherewithal not only to pass the ball, but to make a perfect pass. Snaer is where he should be, perched on the right wing. Florida State's other marksman, Dulkys, is directly across from Snaer, on the left. Loucks makes the correct pass, because Rivers has moved almost into the left-hand passing lane, and is likely to pick off or at least tip away Loucks's attempt to find Dulkys.
Andre Dawkins, though, has cheated into the paint, right in the top right corner, hoping to give help should Loucks make it that far. In milliseconds, Loucks reads this, and fires the ball to Snaer on the right wing. He hits him right in the midsection. Right where he should. A perfect pass.
So you have five players who have all done the right thing in this moment: Miller collects the ball and makes his inbounds pass; Loucks is there to take it. James sets a precise (and legal) screen. The two shooters have found their places on the wings. And Loucks makes his pass, as he should, just as Mason Plumlee races up behind him.
I happened to have a perfect angle on Snaer at this moment; my seat on press row is directly across from the visitor's bench, right in front of which Snaer was poised. The look on the 22-year-old junior's face was one of total and alert confidence: He was following Loucks's path intently with his eyes, his countenance expressing, intensely, a perfect balance between excitement and calm. He knew, in an instant, that the ball would be coming to him; and he knew before he received not only what he was going to do with it—but that it was going to go in the bucket.
Here was another instance of baseball's so-called non-linearity bleeding into basketball. The game was over before Snaer's shot went in. It was over two seconds before that, when he knew he was going to take the shot. He was in that moment, and when you are fully, deeply, psychically, all in a moment, you can actually control its outcome. It rarely happens—a few times in a lifetime—but it does happen, if you have done your work, and made yourself ready to receive it.
It's the kind of sequence a game theorist ought to study, a particle physicist, something like that. Its precision is really extraordinary, and those extraordinary 4.9 seconds of precision are how and why Florida State managed to prevent No. 3 Duke from tying the school record for consecutive home court victories, 46. It was Duke's first home loss against an unranked opponent in its last 64 games. The last one? To Florida State, on February 4, 2007.
Florida State is really flying right now. They beat Duke and North Carolina, both ranked in the top five nationally, in a single week, and threw in a win over Maryland while they were at it. The Seminoles have won four straight games. With yesterday's win, they are tied with Duke for the Atlantic Coast Conference lead. Florida State is 13-6, not exactly a glittering record, but only two of their losses were really bad ones (at home to Princeton (!) and then at Clemson, a 20-point beatdown). They're surely about to crack the top 25, where they belong.
The Seminoles' 90-57 trouncing of the Tar Heels was an almost mythical thing, culminating in the truly bizarre and captivating sight of Deividas Dulkys, who had torched UNC for 32 points, Geoff Brower-style (there's an obscure one for you, kids), making 8-10 three-pointers, under what my memory tells me was a shower of confetti, with riotous court-storming fans swirling all around him, posing for a picture with Dick Vitale, taken with Vitale's camera by the television cameraman, whose own video footage is capturing the whole thing: A screen in a screen, a man holding two cameras at once, one capturing the other's image, the two men on the screen also obscurely visible behind the screens; and with the guy who did the commentary on Dulkys' historic game posing for a picture with Dulkys himself, thus entering into a narrative he had been recounting from a commentator's remove, all under a hail of confetti and glare of lights. As my friend Jeff put it on Friday night, apropos of nothing having to do with any of that, we are still all living in Andy Warhol's world, and enough already.
So the FSU program is red-hot now, and the team appears to have the parts in place to make a substantial amount of noise in the NCAA Tournament. They look like a team that is capable of beating anyone on any given night—as Krzyzewski said of them after the game—although, curiously, they also look, somehow, like a team you can see losing at home to Princeton. There's something very mercurial about them.
That's odd, given how calm, even laid-back Leonard Hamilton seems. Well, he could afford to be in the postgame media room, having just stolen a game from Duke at Cameron. Yet the difference, during the game, between the high-intensity, referee-working, deep-focus Krzyzewski and the look-away-and-smile-after-the-bad-call Hamilton, was striking. His players do not reflect his persona, unlike Krzyzewski's, who do (and for that matter Tony Bennett's; his Virginia team plays with the same equable but intent discipline that you see in his demeanor). Snaer and Dulkys are pretty wired-up dudes, and Gibson did a fair amount of emoting on the court, too. It isn't clear whether Hamilton really has these guys in hand or not, and perhaps it doesn't matter as long as he keeps getting results like yesterday's.
After the game, he talked about their progress over the season so far—"our team is growing and improving; we still have a lot of errors"—almost as if they're a young bunch. They aren't, but Hamilton explained how their experience isn't commensurate with their advanced age. Gibson and Loucks, Hamilton said, played only about 12 minutes per game in their careers until this season; the 27-year-old James didn't start playing basketball until after high school, while he was in the Air Force. "We have an older team, but we're not quite as experienced as you normally would be under the circumstances. We're still in transition in a lot of ways." Yet he credited his team's "character" in hanging tough through a stretch of turnovers in the second half, and finally prevailing over the No. 4 Blue Devils.
This was one of a few instances when Hamilton managed to have it both ways. Moments later, a reporter asked him about the importance of getting an ACC road win, and Hamilton quickly reminded him that "we won at Virginia Tech." He smiled avuncularly when he said this, but he looked long and unblinking at the questioner, as if to let it sink in that it was not as if yesterday's win was some sort of miracle—nor as if teams other than Duke and UNC are trifles. Yet Hamilton, soon after, called beating Duke "a signature win for us on the road."
I've spent some time on Florida State here not only because they won, but because I think it's a little too easy, here on Tobacco Road, to fall into nearsightedness, forgetting that there are other programs in the ACC whose fortunes (and prowess) merit attention. Hamilton himself acknowledged that Duke and UNC are "the flagship programs" of the ACC, and that his (and others) are always toiling in their wake. Our collective vision will have to widen even more next season, when two stalwart Big East powers join the conference. I'm old enough to remember when Georgia Tech joined the conference. It seemed then that they were the Pluto of the ACC solar system, a distant planetoid of a program down in the unthinkably far-off metropolis of Atlanta. (The ACC was pretty much all little college towns till then.) Now the Yellow Jackets' stripes are faded and well-worn into the ACC fold, and the league extends from Miami all the way to Boston. And with the way the NCAA is going as a whole these days, conferences expanding, widening their circles, it's good to keep counseling oneself to think globally, but cheer locally. I hope a day will come, at least, when the Blue Devils' fight song no longer includes the line: "Carolina go to hell, eat shit!" For multiple reasons.
But as for Duke, which is where we should leave off, yes, "we're hurting," as Seth Curry told me after the game. Austin Rivers, always a torrent of feeling, wasn't shy with it either. Among the current Blue Devils, only Miles Plumlee had ever lost a game at Cameron, which also means there is only one class at Duke that had ever witnessed one. The scene in the locker room was less one of agony than of quiet, empty uncertainty. What are we supposed to do after we lose here? they seemed to be wondering. No surprise that the freshman Rivers was the most talkative, as he's had the least experience in Cameron and thus the greatest likelihood not to be shocked by it. Also he likes talking.
But then, within a couple of hours of the game's end, there were Rivers and Tyler Thornton, tweeting their optimism. Thornton: "Tough loss. You learn from it and move on." Rivers: "Tough loss .... Have to bounce back tho! Keep moving forward!" Seth Curry tweeted thanks to his "bro," the Seminoles' Ian Miller—presumably a "bro" because the two players, about a year apart in age, both grew up balling in Charlotte, and presumably being thanked for supportive words to Curry following the Blue Devils' heartbreaking loss.
Those tweets offer yet another reminder, one we should always be glad to receive, of the youth of these players—and in this case, how that youth is a benefit: Kids are resilient. They adapt and grow. Athletes are generally don't-dwell-on-it types, but young athletes even more so. With age comes a sense of frailty, and the failure that lurks beyond it. At this age, and at Duke, a loss is just the brief postponement of the next win.
And to "learn from it and move on," to "keep moving forward," what do they have to do? Well, first of all, let's not conclude that the loss means they played poorly. The Blue Devils actually played very well yesterday. "Neither team played losing basketball," Krzyzewski declared, and neither of the two players I asked whether they thought they could or should have done anything differently supplied much of an answer. Miles Plumlee—who, tellingly, had eight rebounds in the game's first 11 minutes and none thereafter—lamented not having been able to get stops in the second half, when the Seminoles shot an eye-opening 66.7 per cent from the floor and nearly doubled their point total from the first half. The Blue Devils' interior allowed too many easy scoring opportunities for James and Gibson, who also blocked five Duke shots.
Beyond that, not much to say. Duke missed some shots they'd probably tell you they should have made. Seth Curry has missed 25 of his last 35 three-pointers. Quinn Cook, who played less than one minute last night, is both young and, it seems, injured to some degree. The guards generally are beatable off the dribble, although they show signs of improving.
Other than that, more of the same wouldn't be entirely inappropriate. What a loss like this makes you hungry for, almost immediately, is another game. As Leonard Hamilton put it, "You can't allow yourself to get too high when things are going good, or too low when [etc.], because there's another team coming right around the corner."
For Duke, that team is Maryland, 12-6 just as Florida State was coming into yesterday's game, and which hosts the Blue Devils on Wednesday night. This will be the first time Mike Krzyzewski has faced a Maryland team not coached by Gary Williams since 1989. The Terrapins are by no means terraple (sorry), despite their middling record. They lost at Temple yesterday, as Duke did two and a half weeks ago, but they've also beaten Alabama and Notre Dame. The Terps boast the ACC's leading scorer, Terrell Stoglin, who averages over 21 points per game. He'll give Duke's guards a good test of their evolving defensive skills. And if 7-foot-1 center Alex Len, who injured his ankle against Temple, is able to play Wednesday, he'll be a load for the Plumli. Still, it's a game Duke ought to win, if they play well.
We'll see you back here next Saturday, January 28 at high noon, when St. John's comes down for Duke's final regular-season non-conference game. St. John's isn't very good this year—just 8-11—but just to throw a bit of a scare into you, two facts: just about a year ago, January 30, 2011, St. John's walloped the Blue Devils in Madison Square Garden, 93-78. And while the bad taste lingers from the end of their 45-game home winning streak, Duke has another, much more mature one to prolong. Mike Krzyzewski has won an astounding
87 consecutive non-conference games at Cameron [UPDATE: that figure was true through last season, but I neglected to account for Duke's seven additional non-conference home wins so far this season, so that makes it] 94 consecutive games at Cameron, and Duke's record happens to be—yup—95.
The last loss? You have to go all the way back to February of 2000. The team that beat them? St. John's.