Nevada’s NCAA Tournament run came to an end last night against Loyola after the Wolf Pack failed to mount a third consecutive double-digit comeback in the second half. A feverish rally did erase a 12-point deficit to level things at 59-59 before Loyola responded and held a 66-65 advantage with 36 seconds remaining.
Nevada coach Eric Musselman was then faced with a strategic decision. He could opt to play defense in hopes of getting the ball back with a chance to win in the final seconds, or he could choose to foul repeatedly to send the Ramblers to the free-throw line, extending the game. He picked the latter option and Marques Townes knocked down a triple with 6.2 seconds on the clock to put the game on ice.
Despite Caleb Martin’s three-point answer, there was not enough time remaining for the Wolf Pack to foul enough to put Loyola at the line in a one-and-one situation.
There’s nothing easier in sports than second-guessing a decision without the pesky pressure of real-life consequences. That said, our internal staff Slack conversation consisted of a lot of first-guessing Musselman’s plan in real time.
Because the best-case scenario for playing defense for a full shot clock would still have yielded a difficult and time-constrained do-or-die offensive possession on the other end. Even if Townes’ shot been off the mark and resulted in a Nevada rebound, the Wolf Pack would have been looking at the prospect of going 94 feet in about 4.5 seconds. With two timeouts at their disposal, Musselman’s team had the option to create a dead-ball play or attempt to capitalize on a helter-skelter dash to the bucket.
Both options come with tough odds, especially because there wouldn’t have been time for an offensive rebound, especially without calling a timeout. And that’s if the defensive stop was achieved. Had Loyola made a two, they would have had the option to intentionally foul Nevada in order to prevent a potential game-tying three-point entirely.
Nevada had four fouls going into the possession, so it would have taken three more to put Loyola in the bonus. That’s three attempts to get a steal before committing one. That’s three more inbounds plays that could go wrong. Even with solid Ramblers execution, they’d have headed to the line shooting one-and-one with over 20 seconds remaining. Even with two makes, the Wolf Pack would have gotten time to run real offense and earn either a game-tying look or a swift two to force even more free-throws.
Musselman essentially played for a situation similar to the one Michigan faced against Houston. That one worked out for the Wolverines, but it’s not as if Jordan Poole had an exceptional, high-percentage shot for all the marbles.
Musselman, for all practical purposes, was banking on lightning striking twice. And Nevada never got a chance to take its shot in the dark.