Vanderbilt and Tennessee put an argument about basketball strategy to the test last night in the Vols' 76-73 overtime win. The question is whether a team that is up by three points late in a game should foul the opposing team or not.
Proponents say the team that's up should commit a foul because it prevents the opponent from being able to hit a three-point shot to tie the game—and obviously, the foul should be anything but on a three-point attempt. The opponent can, at most, cut the lead to one, and then the team that's up gets the ball back. Or, if there's really not much time left at all, the team that's down will have to miss the second free throw intentionally and hope to get a rebound and another shot.
Opponents of the strategy say that three-pointers are low percentage shots anyway, and it's even easier to defend them when you know you only have to guard the three-point line. Just play defense and force the team that's down to take a contested, tough shot.
At the end of regulation, Kevin Stallings chose to employ the fouling strategy. With six seconds to go and a 66-63 lead, Riley LaChance immediately fouled Josh Richardson rather than let the Vols get a three-point attempt. Richardson drained both of his free throws to cut the lead to 66-65. Tennessee immediately fouled afterward, and Wade Baldwin IV missed his first but hit his second for the Commodores to extend the lead to two. Robert Hubbs made an amazing running buzzer-beater off the glass on the other end to send the game to overtime. Fouling didn't work for Vandy.
At the end of the overtime period, Tennessee was up 76-73 with eight seconds to go. Donnie Tyndall did not have his guys foul. LaChance ended up missing his three-point attempt, and Armani Moore corralled the rebound for the Vols with a second to go. He missed both of his free throws, but it didn't matter because of how little time was left on the clock. Ball game. Not fouling worked.
You might see this outcome as a confirmation of playing defense and not fouling as the right strategy. In actuality, this was probably a epic case of bad luck for Vandy.
There is no firm consensus on the matter, as evidenced by the two coaches employing opposite strategies. Still, most mathematical analyses of this topic end up concluding that fouling is the better strategy. For both of these instances—Vandy fouling and Tennessee not—to go against the Commodores was pure misfortune.
Well, that, and a reminder that you should always hit your free throws. Not only did Baldwin, an 80% foul shooter, miss his shot that could've reestablished the three-point lead, but LaChance, an 86% foul shooter, missed one that could've made that 66-63 lead a 67-63 lead. Although, I guess having two high percentage foul shooters miss shots that close together at such an important time might be the bigger misfortune. Better luck next time, Commodores.