Split Second Decision

We've had 12 hours to review, dissect, discuss and decide what West Virginia should have done in the final 4.3 seconds (plus bonus time awarded by the clock operator) of regulation time in the Louisville game. Jamie Smalligan, Darris Nichols and the rest of the Mountaineer defense had far less.

As the Cardinals threw the ball inbounds and raced upcourt following Darris Nichols' score that put WVU in front by two, the Mountaineers were supposed to be in a man-to-man defense, but the Cardinals' speed, plus the scrambled on-court action, gave Louisville the chance to tie the score.

"We knew where to go, but they just outletted it so fast," WVU point guard Darris Nichols said afterward. "We were trying to get back, but the guys on their team kind of got in our way, and he got an open layup."

Such things often happen in the frenzied final seconds of a game, which is why a number of coaches prefer not to call timeout in those situations. They prefer to attack a defense that hasn't had the chance to set up, especially if they have a speedy ballhandler to press the advantage. In Edgar Sosa, UL had just that. Challenged only by Nichols and WVU center Jamie Smalligan, Sosa got a second huge break when the pair got tangled up after a fateful decision by the Mountaineer center.

"We knew we were going to play man, but it was tough, because that four seconds seemed to go by really slow," Smalligan said before he learned of the slow-starting clock. "I thought he was going to pull up for a three, and I really regret that play, because I feel like I set a screen on Darris. I stepped out to the three-point line, because I didn't want to give him an open shot for the game winner. I wanted to make him shoot it over me. [Looking back], maybe I should have stayed back closer to the basket. I don't know. It just didn't come out the way we wanted it to."

And therein lies the key point (other than the clock operation and missed travelling call on Sosa). Smalligan had a split-second decision to make, and only in hindsight could it be labelled as "incorrect" even though that description is unfair as well. Had Smalligan not stepped out and allowed Sosa to make an uncontested three-pointer to win, he would have been facing the same criticism that he is getting now -- perhaps even more so. And that's not right -- because the criticism is being based on the results of the play, not on whether his decision was the correct one or not.

In this instance, the "correct" decision is only determined by the outcome of the play. If Sosa doesn't make the layup, Smalligan gets praise for shutting down the three-point chance and forcing him to take a hurried shot. And while it's in eveyrone's nature to second-guess and analyze decision, that doesn't make unloading on a player who has to make a bang-bang decision the right thing to do.

Give Smalligan credit for: a) making a decision and acting on it, and b) being open and honest about it afterward. In hindsight, every Mountaineer fan wished he would have stayed back. So does Smalligan. But that doesn't mean his decision was a bad one. And there's certainly no one that feels worse about it than he does.

Additionally, give the big guy credit for his outlook.

"We don't have any regrets. We feel like we played hard for the whole 50 minutes. We'd have had regrets if we had gotten blown out."

There's no doubt that WVU's defensive organization was poor on the last play. With just one change of direction, Sosa wouldn't have been able to get all the way to the basket, and thus would have had a more difficult shot. The Mountaineers missed their best chance to win the game at that point. Every player on the floor in those final four seconds would undoubtedly do something different if given the chance to play those seconds over again.

But as Smalligan pointed out, that wasn't the only reason the Mountaineers lost the game, as they missed several chances to do so before that point. Missed free throws and lay-ups, bad passing connections and more were factors that loomed just as large in the final score. It's only the fact that the magnifying glass falls on the final play, not those that occurred through the other 39:56 of regulation time.


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