Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Different Way to Winning

For someone who once saw a game-winning shot made from a player's knees about 25 years ago, I think it's safe to say that I've become prepared for just about any kind of crazy finish this profession can throw at me. 

I wasn't ready for Saturday night, though.

If you haven't had a chance to watch the replay of the end of regulation of the Aggie women's basketball win at Cal State Fullerton, do yourself a favor and click here, and then thank me later.

What made it so unusual? It wasn't Fullerton's game-tying three-pointer with nine seconds left that's out of the ordinary. That didn't make UC Davis feel good but it certainly wasn't unusual. 

Now, the Aggies' turnover with four seconds to go that resulted in a breakaway by the Titans' Alex Thomas - and subsequent foul by Alyson Doherty - with a half-second left? You're getting warmer.

But trailing 59-57 with less time on the clock than it takes to type "clock", the Aggies needed to dig deep into their bag of tricks to pull this one out. It wasn't like Christian Laettner was waiting for the inbounds pass at the other end of the floor, or that somehow the 1972 Soviet Union Olympic basketball team was setting up shop near the hoop.

"We have a notebook full of (last-second plays)", head coach Jennifer Gross said Tuesday afternoon. "But with .5 of a second, there's not a whole lot you can do."

Fullerton called a timeout after the free throws, putting 6-foot-1 post Natalie Williams on the baseline to try and impede any long pass by Celia Marfone. Once Gross saw how the Titans planned to guard the last split-second of game time, she countered with a timeout of her own and enlisted the help of assistant coach Matt Klemin.

"He took the board and drew up a play for Molly (Greubel) to sneakily come in and take the charge," she said. 
Molly Greubel

With only Greubel in the backcourt and a player guarding the inbounds heave, the idea was simple - have Marfone move along the baseline, hopefully draw the defender with her and then have Greubel step into her path to maybe draw a foul. But the play still needed something else. Enter assistant coach Joe Teramoto.

"He made the point that we have to get the girl moving," she said. "The defender was just kind of standing still so we didn't think she'd be running fast enough to get us a charge. So he had the key detail to get Celia running one way hard before she came back the other way."

Still, there was still one more thing Gross had to do and that was to have a quick chat with the nearest official.

"I kind of said, 'this is what we're trying to do' and take a look at it."

She wasn't asking for a call, nor baiting the ref, but she didn't want their attention to be solely focused on the other seven players on the court. Following a 30-second timeout by Fullerton - the third in a row by both teams as they tried to out-manuever each other - the play was put into action.

It worked perfectly… and beautifully. Marfone drew Williams one way before leading her back the opposite direction where Greubel was waiting to, well, take one for the team. And boy did she take one. Gruebel went down hard, whistles started blowing - including, Gross said, the first whistle which came from an official who was not aware of the play - and a foul was called.

You can't fault Williams for the foul. She was just trying to make a play and do her job as a defender. She shadowed Marfone like she was supposed to, just like a thousand other players do in similar situations. So, rather than blame her, everything she be directed to crediting the Aggies for designing and executing a play that Gross said she has never seen successful with a foul call. Even men's coach Jim Les, who dropped into her office to congratulate her on Tuesday afternoon, said he'd never seen a team pull it off. 

Desperate times call for desperature measures. But things weren't done yet.

The Aggie bench was celebrating, the Titans' bench was stunned. It was if UC Davis had already won the game and it hadn't. Greubel, who had just met the floor up close and personal, still needed to make two free throws with the game on the line. She's an 83.3-percent free throw shooter.

"She's the person you want on the line at that particular moment," said Gross. "Obviously, there are a lot of our kids I would trust but she's the one where I just feel she's as tough as nails. She'll take the hit and step up and knock the shots down."

Which she did, sending the game into overtime. Of course, even though the Aggies took a five-point lead in the extra period, the fireworks weren't done. Another game-tying trey from the Titans preceded do-everything Sydnee Fipps driving the left side of the lane for a layup with 25 seconds left and a 69-67 lead. 

Oh yeah, then there was the matter of the Titans' final play which included a great save of the ball from going out of bounds and a wide-open three-point shot that rimmed out in the final seconds. Greubel grabbed the rebound, ran out the clock and a couple of minutes later turned to her dad who was in the stands and said, "Happy Birthday" and giving him a pretty good gift.

Happy birthday, indeed. And a pretty routine Aggie win to boot.

Mike Robles is assistant athletics director who wasn't in Fullerton but followed it courtside during the men's home game. He had essentially given up on a win after the Titans' free throws with a half-second to go. Yes, he's learned a lesson. The shot from the knees referenced above came circa 1988 when Cal Poly's Shaun Reed delivered the dagger at UC Riverside. It was also the first and last time Robles cheered at a press table -- a major no-no in this profession. An even crazier ending came on the final football play between the Mustangs and Cameron (Okla.) University around that same year (yes, Robles worked at CP). With the game tied, Cameron threw a last-second pass that was intercepted. The Cal Poly player who picked it off then tried to circle from one side of the field to the other, hoping to get up the sideline for a touchdown. (College football didn't have OT yet). As he was about to get hit, he threw a lateral behind himself to a teammate who never materialized in that spot. The ball bounced into the endzone where a pile of players scrummed for it. Cameron came away with it and jaws dropped throughout the stadium. That play is rumored to be on some kind of ESPN bloopers show airing in the middle of the night on one of ESPN's hundred channels. Look for it.

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