"In a game that is that close... All it takes is one really good play."
That's what Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson had to say after his season ended in a loss to Illinois State. A philosophical quote from a philosophical man.
But he's not talking about a buzzer-beater. Not in the least bit. In fact, Illinois State dribbled the clock out as it clung to a 12-point lead in the final seconds of this game, the kind of gesture that normally only occurs in a blowout. So how in the world could Ben Jacobson believe "one really good play" made the difference in a 12-point loss? And what exactly is a "play," anyway? Is a play a layup or a three-pointer? Is it a pass? Is it a deflection? Is rotating over to help your man on defense a "play?" Is it all of these?
How many plays occur during the course of a game? If you ask me, everything is a play. Every time the ball swings side to side and the UNI man-to-man defense rotates, that's a play. Every time Northern Iowa misses a three-pointer, that's a play-- and every time Jackie Carmichael grabs the rebound for ISU, that's another play. It's a lot of math to process, but I'd say probably more than 1,000 "plays" occur during the course of any college basketball game. Every foul. Every shot. Every rebound. Every timeout. Every tip. Every pump fake. They are all plays, all of which are important to the outcome of the game.
And of those thousands and thousands of plays during the season, one play by Carmichael with 13 minutes left in the game on Friday ended up changing the entire game. But it wasn't really "one play" as Jacobson suggests. It was the result of almost a dozen plays in the span of 20 seconds, so obscure you'd have to go back and watch the game on tape to understand what really happened.
I'll set the scene for you. Northern Iowa and Illinois State are mired in dual shooting slumps. This is the Missouri Valley, where defense commands your respect and offense sometimes takes a back seat. It's hard to score in this league, and Friday is no different. Possession after possession, the two teams get into their halfcourt sets and fire bricks. It's like there's nowhere to go because the defenses are draped all over each other. UNI leads 25-21 at halftime, and with 13 minutes remaining, we're tied at 31. We're looking at a drag-it-out, punch-you-in-the-face defensive battle in the Missouri Valley. Just the way we love it. At that point, nobody had taken control of the basketball game. It was anyone's victory.
But that didn't take long to change. It all begins on Northern Iowa's offensive possession with 13:15 remaining in a tie game. Winner goes to the semi-finals. Loser's NCAA Tournament dream is over.
Johnny Moran has the ball at the top of the key. One play. He's shaded toward the left wing and passes to Jake Koch about five feet to his right. Two plays. This is by design. Moran gets an off-ball screen from his teammate. Three plays. He cuts toward the hoop-- violently. Four plays. Koch sees him and fires the ball. Five plays. Illinois State deflects it. Six plays. It's a turnover.
Tyler Brown grabs the ball. Seven plays. He races downcourt and his team has numbers in transition. Eight plays. Northern Iowa's defense hustles back and stops the ball. Nine plays. UNI's Anthony James pokes the ball from the hands of Brown. Ten plays. It's a loose ball. Nic Moore picks it up. 11 plays. Two UNI defenders swarm him. 12 plays. He fires it to Jon Ekey at the top of the key. 13 plays. Koch is all over ISU's best player, Carmichael, in the post. 14 plays. Bryant Allen realizes that UNI's defense is still out of sorts from the loose ball and calls for the ball in the left corner because he's wide open. Ekey finds him. 15 plays. Koch realizes he's about to give up an open three, so he leaves Carmichael to contest the shot. 16 plays. Allen decides not to shoot it-- and yes, that's a play in and of itself. 17 plays. Anthony James now realizes Carmichael is about to get a pass from Allen, and he's about to be wide open for a dunk. So he rotates over. 18 plays. Too late. Carmichael gets a bounce pass from Allen and he's heading toward the hoop. 19 plays. Carmichael takes the basketball, turns toward the basket without a dribble and leaps toward the hoop with authority. 20 plays. James is too late; he's trying to rotate, but instead of contesting the shot he slams right into Carmichael. 21 plays. Doesn't matter. Carmichael finishes a monstrous dunk. 22 plays. It's an and-one. 33-31 Illinois State with 12:58 to play. So what? There's an eternity left in this game.
Except the Redbirds would never trail again.
From there, Illinois State's lead grew and grew, and even when the Panthers cut into the deficit, they never could quite get over the hump. Partly because of that highlight-reel dunk by Jackie Carmichael. That's the "one play" Jacobson was talking about. Except he was wrong.
It wasn't one play. It was 22 plays. The 22 plays we just outlined-- the cut by Johnny Moran, the tip by ISU, the loose ball... everything. That was the sequence that changed the game and helped Illinois State win by 12 points. It's what helped Illinois State upset Wichita State in the next round and push champion Creighton to overtime on Sunday.
And had a few plays gone a little differently at the end of the weekend, the Redbirds might have been dancing in the NCAA Tournament. That's just the beauty of Our Game, though. Had Koch not thrown that pass, maybe it's Northern Iowa in overtime against the Bluejays and in position to reach the NCAAs. Had Moore not swooped up that ball and fired it to Ekey, maybe it's the Panthers playing in front of a national audience on CBS two days later.
Or maybe not. Maybe those 22 plays had nothing to do with the outcome of the basketball game. Maybe basketball simply comes down to the team that makes more good plays than bad plays during the course of a game. Maybe it's just too dramatic to say one play-- or a sequence of 22 plays-- can change an entire game.
And yet, it's still comforting to believe a game this large can boil down to a span of less than a minute. That a game we spend so much money on each year, that we live and die by and arrange our schedules around, can change paths in an instant. You just never know where this game will take you. On Friday, it took Illinois State from a tie game to a tipped pass to a dunk to five minutes from an NCAA Tournament appearance. That's something you never could have predicted when Jake Koch threw that ill-advised pass with 13:15 left in a quarterfinal game.
A mundane moment that made a far greater impact than anybody could have imagined. The story of Our Game.
ILLINOIS STATE 54, NORTHERN IOWA 42 03/02/2012
NORTHERN IOWA 19-13 (9-9) -- J. Moran 5-13 0-0 13; J. Koch 3-11 2-4 9; M. Sonnen 2-7 0-0 6; A. James 1-9 0-0 2; C. Rank 2-5 1-2 6; D. Mitchell 0-3 2-2 2; S. Tuttle 1-4 0-0 2; A. Pehl 0-0 2-2 2; M. Morrison 0-3 0-0 0; T. Lange 0-0 0-0 0; M. Martino 0-0 0-0 0; M. Singleton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 14-55 7-10 42. ILLINOIS STATE 19-12 (9-9) -- J. Carmichael 5-11 6-7 16; B. Allen 3-11 0-0 8; T. Brown 3-10 1-2 7; N. Moore 2-7 4-4 8; J. Ekey 2-7 0-0 4; A. Cousin 2-4 0-0 5; J. Wilkins 3-5 0-0 6; Z. Upshaw 0-1 0-0 0; D. Clark 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 20-58 11-13 54.
Three-point goals: UNI 7-23 (A. James 0-2; J. Koch 1-5; J. Moran 3-7; M. Sonnen 2-6; C. Rank 1-3), ILST 3-20 (J. Ekey 0-2; Z. Upshaw 0-1; B. Allen 2-8; A. Cousin 1-1; J. Wilkins 0-1; T. Brown 0-3; D. Clark 0-2; N. Moore 0-2); Rebounds: UNI 31 (J. Koch 8), ILST 40 (J. Carmichael 15); Assists: UNI 11 (J. Koch 3), ILST 6 (J. Carmichael 2); Total Fouls -- UNI 14, ILST 13; Fouled Out: UNI-None; ILST-None.