Eight Games, Pt. 2: Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)

The Game

On the day of the game, Tennessee entered Freedom Hall (Louisville’s longtime home pre-Yum! Center) as a four-point underdog. Ken Pomeroy’s site didn’t exist at that point, but you can essentially use that line to say Tennessee had a ~33% chance of winning. They needed it bad, of course, but Louisville was probably a hair better and they were at home. Strangely enough, though, Tennessee entered this game as the superior offensive team; they were hitting 42% of their three-point attempts, the third-highest rate in the nation. Louisville, meanwhile, entered at 29.5%. The path to a victory likely made its way through the three-point line.

This makes it all funnier that the first six minutes of the game are absolute garbage. There are no points for the first 1:51 (Vincent Yarbrough opens the scoring), Tennessee misses its first three three-point attempts, and the teams combine for a 1-for-14 start from the field. It’s 4-3 Tennessee six minutes in and looks even worse than it sounds. Neither team seems stable at all offensively despite both sides wanting to play up-tempo basketball.

Neither side does anything fancy in the first half; Louisville presses some after made baskets and it gives Tennessee some turnover issues, but it doesn’t wreck what Tennessee is trying to do. In fact, for most of this first half, Tennessee actually leads and runs the game script. The only things anyone needs to remember about the first 15 minutes of this game: the game is on pace for a 61-48 final and Ron Slay regrettably gets his stuff wrecked by Ellis Myles.

Then, the final five minutes of the first half randomly shifts into shootout mode. The two teams combine for 27 points in the final five minutes, which would be a 216-point pace over the course of a full game. Louisville alone scores 17 in the final four minutes after Tennessee takes a 25-18 lead. The Cardinals get hot (7-for-8 to close the half) and Tennessee simply gets a bit lackadaisical defensively.

This is just kind of who Tennessee is at this point; you hope for better but you don’t really expect all of the lack of discipline to be coached out of the squad nine games in. It still hurts, though. Tennessee crashes into halftime trailing 35-33 after spending the vast majority of the middle ten minutes ahead of Louisville. The key difference: turnovers. Tennessee gives it up 12 times to Louisville’s 8, which is extremely important as Tennessee is handily outshooting the Cardinals (53.4% eFG% to 41%) and isn’t losing the free throw battle by a notable amount.

The second half follows an oddly similar script. Tennessee’s defensive pressure is a lot better out of the gate, particularly thanks to Thaydeus Holden’s active hands…

…but it doesn’t matter when neither Tennessee nor Louisville is able to generate much from their own shots. The two teams combine for a 6-for-25 start to the second half over the first seven minutes, meaning over the first 13 combined minutes of both halves, these teams are hitting about 18% of their shots. It’s like seventh-grade basketball in Freedom Hall.

In retrospect, this game simply looks like two teams that aren’t very good. Neither can get great shots consistently; both teams commit several silly turnovers; neither side can keep the other off of the offensive boards. It’s ugly to watch, and in a way, it almost makes you more thankful for the prettier, ‘less’ physical version of today’s game. That said, you do have to appreciate a throwback from time to time. That’s what history is for.

Anyway, Louisville compounds their own issues by leaning into the pregame issue we discussed: poor three-point shooting. The Cardinals miss their first 12 three-point attempts of the half; at one point, they sit at 4-for-28 for the game. Amazingly, if that holds, it would merely tie Louisville’s worst three-point shooting performance of the first nine games of the 2001-02 season; they also shot 4-for-28 in a 66-61 win over Ohio State.

Most of this second half is that same nastiness. Louisville and Tennessee trade the lead several times; neither is offensively competent enough to actually push away from the other. However, with about six minutes left, Louisville takes a 59-53 lead. It seems like they’re going to survive a gross slugfest at home. Then Tennessee’s talent begins to show back up, and Ron Slay begins to take over.

Tennessee cranks out a slow, methodical run from five down to take the lead with under two minutes left. After a failed Louisville possession, Slay gets the ball down low. One thing that’s both apparent at eight years old and at almost 28: none of us have a very good chance of stopping Slay once he gets under the basket. Louisville tries and fouls; Slay finishes through the contact. 68-64, Tennessee.

On the other end, Louisville misses its 12th three-point attempt in a row. Tennessee battles for the rebound and gets it; Thaydeus Holden goes to the line, where he’s a career 79% shooter, and hits both. It is 70-64, Tennessee, with 36 seconds left. Buzz Peterson is very close to the closest thing Tennessee will have had to a Signature Win since…December 22, 2000, when Tennessee went on the road and beat #12 Syracuse. 363 days later, it’s Buzz’s turn. Potentially.

Let me put this in perspective using Ken Pomeroy’s Win Percentage Calculator. If we assume that the pregame figure of 33% to win is accurate, Tennessee enters these final 36 seconds with a 98.3% chance of winning the game. To put that in perspective, you have about a 98% chance of winning a game you’re favored by 22 points in. You’d regularly assume that a team favored by 22 points (roughly the equivalent of 2020-21 Tennessee playing KenPom #258 Idaho State at home) would win the game. Why wouldn’t you do so here?

Louisville trails by six points with 36 seconds left. They’re a bad three-point shooting team who is 4-for-28 in this game. Even if they hit two, that still means, barring unforeseen issues, they’ll have to foul Tennessee twice. Even if Tennessee only hits three of their four free throw attempts in this scenario – and assuming that each Louisville possession takes, like, eight seconds off the clock – that’s still Tennessee 73, Louisville 70 with another three-point attempt on the way.

Reece Gaines, who is 6-for-19 from the field tonight, motors up the court. He doesn’t have a lot of time, obviously, and every second takes away from Louisville’s chance at winning that much more. He heaves up a 30-footer over Jon Higgins, and his shot is pretty obviously way too long.

It banks in.

70-67, Tennessee, 31.7 seconds left. Fine, whatever, you get the ball in to whoever you want to take free throws. If Tennessee merely gets fouled with possession of the ball and 31 (or fewer) seconds to play, they enter those free throws with a 92.6% chance of winning. Again, like being favored by 15 points, you pretty much always win those games.

Tennessee’s inbounder is Vincent Yarbrough. He tries to get the ball into Jon Higgins’ hands. Higgins was the rare excellent three-point shooter (39.8% 3PT%) who didn’t give you much at the line (64.8%), but I get it. Alright, so he hits one out of two, and…oh no.

It happens so fast that ESPN doesn’t actually show it, even with the benefit of a later replay. Louisville’s press, which gave Tennessee serious trouble in the first half, comes back to strike once more. Higgins never gets the ball. After a pair of harried passes, the ball ends up in Bryant Northern’s hands, who is shockingly wide-open. 70-70, tie game. In less than ten seconds, Tennessee goes from a 98.3% chance to win to just 54.7%.

Something incredibly strange happens here: Buzz Peterson never actually calls a timeout. He has one that he’d be able to use if he wants to, but he just…doesn’t. In almost every other version of this situation I’ve seen, the coach calls a timeout very quickly to set up a final play. Peterson doesn’t. He lets them play.

Marcus Haislip, with seven seconds left, appears to prove Buzz right.

This might be the great forgotten moment: the fact that, for nearly 20 years, my warped memory of this game involved Tennessee turning the ball over and missing free throws as Louisville hit three threes to overcome their deficit. Tennessee doesn’t attempt a single free throw in the final 36 seconds. Instead, it’s Haislip who brings Tennessee back in front, 72-70, with seven seconds to play. A 78.4% chance to win is what Tennessee’s got.

Something even more strange, at least from my basketball viewing experiences, happens: Rick Pitino also never calls a timeout. Louisville has seven seconds to find two or even three points. The ball is sprinted up the court. Reece Gaines gains control. It only makes sense that he’d get the last look. Gaines attempted 21 shots in this game; no other player on either side topped 15.

Gaines weaves his way around Ron Slay and…is open. I wish I knew why. My best guess is that, because everyone figured a team down by two would try to score two points after shooting 6-for-30 on threes, Tennessee’s back three defenders imagined Gaines would try and weave his way inside. Instead, Gaines pulls up for his 13th three-point attempt of the game. It’s Louisville’s 31st.

After missing 12 three-point attempts in a row and 24 of 28, Louisville hits three of them in a row to go from down six points to up one. Tennessee only had one truly unproductive possession in the process. In almost every version of a game where one team leads by six with 36 seconds left and the other team hasn’t hit anything at all from deep in a full half, the team on top goes on to win. Studies show that, in the final seconds of games, three-point percentages are often much lower than they are at any other point of the game, particularly when trailing.

Statistics are meaningless, I guess.

Buzz Peterson does call that final timeout. Tennessee runs a deep pass, one that covers almost 90 feet of the 94-foot court, and it somehow comes directly to Haislip’s hands. Haislip is a temporary hero here; one who really should’ve drug Tennessee over the top with his last shot. He nearly gets the exact same shot again. It’s a very good look for a 55% two-point shooter and a future lottery pick.

It misses by maybe three inches. Louisville 73, Tennessee 72: from 98.3% to 0.0% in 36 seconds. A devastated team, fan base, and coach has to pick up the pieces and make it work going forward.

NEXT PAGE: Late for the train

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