Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Skin of Our Teeth

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Skin of our teeth? Not exactly. The final score (84-76) makes it look close, but it really wasn't.

We played Stephens on Monday night in a game that would decide the Northern League championship. Like us, Stephens came in at 3-0, but they had only played the three teams that I felt were the worst in the league. I didn't expect that they would push us much. As it turned out, I was right... and wrong.

In brief:
Stephan sat out the first quarter for missing his second practice, but even without him we dominated -- and I mean DOMINATED -- the boards. Our best offense was the missed shot, because most of them led to rebounds and put backs. On the other end of the floor, Stephens was also scoring fairly easily with half of their eighteen points coming from a rather slick point guard. More on him later.

Stephan came into the game at the start of the second quarter and everything changed. Defensively, we came out of our 2-3 zone and played straight man-to-man, which led to a boatload of turnovers and layups. This is one of the fastest teams I've ever coached. Any time we pick up a loose ball on defense, the guards start in the other direction before the other team can even react. There were moments on Monday when the game seemed more like a track meet than a basketball game. We scored 27 points in the quarter, which is quite a lot considering that we only play eight minute periods. Meanwhile, the Stephens point guard scored nine more, bringing his total to 18.

With the score 47-30 entering the third quarter, the game appeared to be over. Our boys were playing well, and I started sneaking some of my reserves into the game. Stephan only scored four points during the quarter, but he absolutely dominated the defensive end with several blocked shots. One particular play sticks out in my mind. A Stephens player had penetrated into the key and put up a rather soft attempt at a lay up. Stephan had dropped off of his man and rolled through the key to track the shooter. As the shot went up Stephan rose to contest it. He caught it near its peak and swatted it violently against the backboard, sending the ball back beyond the freethrow line. It was the most dominant block I've ever seen at this level. I had to turn around so that the other team wouldn't see me laughing on the sideline.

Our lead approached thirty midway through the third quarter, but we coasted for the final few minutes. Entering the fourth quarter the score was 65-46, and I began thinking about playing some more of my bench players. I remember reading somewhere that the most difficult part of coaching is knowing when a game is won, and when a game is lost. The Stephens coach and I acted that quote out to perfection in the game's final minutes.

With about three minutes to play, we held a comfortable seventeen-point lead, and Stephens was showing us nothing. I decided it was time to call off the dogs. Stephan and DiMarrie had both fouled out, so our lineup would be small. My starting point guard was on the bench, so we would have some ball control issues. I wasn't worried, though. In our league -- or all leagues, for that matter -- when one coach has a huge lead and sends in his bench players, the other coach usually reciprocates. It's a delicate dance, but sportsmanship almost always prevails. On this night, however, the Stephens coach chose to keep his best five in the game. The result was predictable. Stephens scored about ten points in the next minute, closing the gap to six with a minute thirty to play. Faced with the potential of a disastrous loss, I was forced to put my best lineup back out there. They immediately burned thirty seconds off the clock by playing keep away, then found a man cutting for a layup behind the extended lay up. That pretty much iced it.

And what about the Stephens point guard? He had scored TWENTY POINTS in the fourth quarter, with much of that total coming during that run when our second string was on the floor, and he finished with 44 points for the game. And the thing was, almost all of those points (save the eleven he earned at the line) were contested. In general, I think we did a decent job defending him -- he just made all of his shots. He obviously didn't win, but he showed us all a lot.

Next up: Washington