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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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There's little big time about St. Francis College. It's housed in a couple of sawed-off high-rises in downtown Brooklyn, with a campus quad that's essentially the four corners of Remsen and Henry streets. Nonetheless, with about 14 minutes left in the championship game of the Northeast Conference tournament last March, the Terriers had the big time in their sights. With a 56-36 lead over Monmouth, they'd virtually secured the first NCAA tournament berth in their history.

For 26 minutes St. Francis had bamboozled the Hawks' Rahsaan Johnson, an Iversonian penetrator and the conference player of the year. Johnson found a second defender cheating toward him, except when he drove toward the basket; then the Terriers abandoned the helping principles in their man-to-man and spot-welded themselves to the players they were guarding on the wing. This kept Johnson from kicking the ball out for open three-point shots.

No one was more mindful of protecting the perimeter than Steve Howard, the St. Francis senior assigned to Monmouth's sniper of a forward, Gerry Crosby. "In the first half it worked exactly the way we wanted," says Terriers coach Ron Ganulin. "When Johnson beat us off the dribble, we didn't let him kick it to Crosby. Forget the score—we were happy that what we were doing was working."

Suddenly, though, St. Francis ceased to do the things it had done to build the lead. For long stretches Howard and Richy Dominguez, the Terriers' two top scorers, scarcely touched the ball. Meanwhile Howard, who had held Crosby scoreless in the first half with cold defensive discipline, went slack. Something—instinct, hubris, competitive pride—caused him to leave Crosby to try to help impede Johnson's forays to the basket, and Crosby began getting and sinking shots from the wing. Ganulin, incredulous that the object lesson of the first 26 minutes of the game had been so quickly forgotten, yelled at Howard during one timeout, "Don't help!"

"Well," Howard sputtered in reply, "tell them not to let him penetrate!"

Monmouth scored 17 unrebutted points in the midst of this bickering. As if to torture Ganulin, with 2:08 to play the Hawks took the lead after Johnson drove toward the middle, Howard hedged over to help, and Crosby sent a three-pointer sluicing through the net. In losing 67-64, St. Francis didn't merely find itself on the business end of the kind of huge emotional and arithmetical swing that seems to characterize more and more college basketball games nowadays. The Terriers suffered a psychological breakdown as well. "Even when we'd miss a foul shot," says Johnson, "we knew that they knew we were coming."

After a long, fitful off-season, Ganulin still gropes to articulate why St. Francis collapsed. "When the engines shut off, it's very difficult to turn them back on," he says. "We missed layups. There were a couple of calls. Kids started to snap at each other. All that positive energy was reversed. Players began doing things they usually didn't do, and X's and O's went out the window."

Ganulin has plenty of peers to commiserate with. Two days before St. Francis's fiasco, Eastern Illinois erased a 21-point deficit in the final 8:20 of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament title game to defeat Austin Peay 84-83. Earlier, in January, Duke had wiped out a 10-point lead in the final 54 seconds of regulation at Maryland before prevailing 98-96 in overtime.

To discover why so many eye-popping reversals of fortune have occurred of late, SI examined these cases in detail. Rule changes provide some explanations. Foremost among them is the three-point shot—it can fuel a rally for a team with a hot hand, but it can also diminish a lead for a team that goes cold. The 35-second clock and the inability of a lot of players to make clutch free throws also make it more difficult to protect an advantage. With 30-second timeouts replacing some of the 60-second variety, it's harder for a coach to correct a wayward team's course. Finally, the rule, adopted in 1993, that stops the clock after every basket in the final minute keeps hope alive.

As this season unfolds, here are other, more subtle signs to look for when one team has a seemingly insurmountable lead over another. Beware the trailing team that:

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