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Anatomy of a Comeback
Alexander Wolff
December 03, 2001
It seems that no lead is safe these days, and here are the reasons
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December 03, 2001

Anatomy Of A Comeback

It seems that no lead is safe these days, and here are the reasons

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?Has a history of playing its opponent close. Duke and Maryland met four times last season, and in each game the team trailing at the half won. Of the last five games Eastern Illinois and Austin Peay played against each other before the Ohio Valley championship, four were decided by three points or fewer and the fifth in double overtime. When Monmouth and St. Francis met in the 2000 NEC tournament, Monmouth led St. Francis by nine at the half, only to lose. In other words, for one team to run up a huge lead on the other mocked the natural order. Given history like that, the trailing team believes it can come back every bit as much as the front-runner suspects its huge lead is an illusion.

?Has come back before. Earlier last season Eastern Illinois won at Morehead State despite trailing by seven with 42 seconds remaining. As for Duke's Miracle Minute at Maryland, it would become such a touchstone that, after the Terrapins raced to a 22-point advantage in the first half of their national semifinal in Minneapolis, the Blue Devils responded with a Zen calm. "We told ourselves not to panic and got it down to 11 points at the half," forward Mike Dunleavy says. "Then we knew we had 20 minutes to do what we had proved we could do in one minute."

?Takes advantage of a signal play. A fifth foul, whistled on Maryland point guard Steve Blake, permitted Duke guard Jason Williams, who had theretofore shot erratically and committed 10 turnovers, to light up Terrapins understudy Drew Nicholas. Eastern Illinois began its long climb back when guard Kyle Hill left a lob pass at the rim for teammate Henry Domercant, who dunked it with a flourish. Monmouth's comeback began less with something it did than with something St. Francis did: "Early in their run," Hawks coach Dave Calloway recalls, "Howard took a really bad shot."

?Has a take-charge lead guard. More people know of Williams than of Johnson or Hill, but Monmouth and Eastern Illinois trusted the latter two every bit as much as Duke deferred to its floor leader. Shortly after Domercant slammed home Hill's alley-oop pass, Eastern Illinois coach Rick Samuels ordered center Jan Thompson to set high screens for Hill, who proceeded to score 11 points and pass off for two more over the next three minutes. The drive-draw-and-dish style that so many guards now play can gouge huge chunks from a lead: In two of the comebacks examined here, Johnson and Hill each made extra passes to find teammates for crucial baskets, and Williams found Duke wingman Shane Battier for a corner three-pointer that helped salt away the Maryland game in overtime.

?Knows how to nibble away at a lead. You eat a big lead the same way you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. As the Eastern Illinois deficit neared its maximum, assistant coach Troy Collier told the Panthers, "O.K., let's cut it to 10 by the four-minute mark." From there, Domercant says, "it became a mental tiling. Instead of, Man, we're down 21, it was, We're down 10 and have four minutes to tie it. In our minds it made things a little more feasible. And we actually got ahead of schedule." During subsequent timeouts Collier kept resetting the short-term goal, while another assistant, Mike Church, piped in, "Look at their sphincter muscles! They're getting tighter!" In practice the Monmouth coaches regularly set a defensive goal: "Three good stops!" During second-half timeouts against St. Francis, they said the same thing, but like the Panthers, the Hawks' grasp exceeded their reach: Monmouth held St. Francis to one field goal over that final 14-minute stretch.

?Knows how to stop the clock. This doesn't mean fouling the team with the lead to get the ball back, in the old Jim Valvano, pray-they'll-miss-their-free-throws sense. "Basketball's a sport in which you can score without burning time off the clock," says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "We try to get our opponents to foul us so they stop the clock and we can score." That means first passing the ball inside or going hard to the hole, as Williams did during the final minute at Maryland. "We drive the ball instead of taking the three," adds Krzyzewski, "because if we get two points at the line, we can set up our press, and that's another part of the equation."

?Has fallen behind early to a pressing, attacking opponent. "The toughest thing to do is play with a lead when you've used an aggressive style to get that lead," says Terrapins coach Gary Williams, who declined to let the returnees from last season's team talk about their collapses against the Blue Devils, lest the subject stir up painful memories. "Water seeks its own level."

More than anything, comebacks and blown leads are subject to the game's hydraulic fluid: emotion. The comeback—what looks like a kind of zero-sum exchange between a quailing front-runner and a surging challenger—is the natural depletion of one team's positive energy and the just-as-inevitable restoration of the other's as it reels in that opponent. In fact, with the game in the balance, that transaction is hardly zero-sum at all: "For the trailing team, it's a little bit at a time," says Calloway. "For the team that had a big lead, it's so much, so quick."

What Calloway describes was never more obvious than during Princeton's stunning defeat of Penn in February 1999. The Quakers did virtually nothing wrong in jumping to a 40-13 lead with 15:11 left in the second half and almost nothing right in getting outscored 37-9 the rest of the way.

What's a coach to do when emotion can whipsaw from one extreme to the other? "I tell my players that the game is never in control, especially if you don't play with the same intensity that built you the lead," says Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz. "Also, the game is never out of control as long as you keep playing hard. That's what we stress in every huddle."

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