Going into Sunday's game at Georgia Tech - a game that Georgia Tech lost 70-59 - each team had something to play for. For Georgia Tech, it would be the chance to see off senior guard/forward Alex Montgomery and senior forward Deja Foster. Montgomery was a member of the 1500 point club and both players were team leaders, so the goal was to see them out of Atlanta and into the post-season for the victory. It would also be the last women's basketball game played at Alexander Memorial Coliseum before the building of a new arena to open in the 2012-13 season.
But Miami had something to play for, too. Holding at 25-3 on the season before the game, they were 11-2 in the ACC and with a win the Hurricanes would either tie Duke or win the conference outright if Duke lost. If Georgia Tech won, they'd finish fourth for the season and be given a bye in the opening round of the ACC, so both teams were playing for post-season position.
No bye. Georgia Tech will now play Virginia Tech - the bottom ACC finisher - in an opening round game at 11 am on Thursday, March 3rd.
"I honestly feel like tonight we took a step backwards," Georgia Tech head coach MaChelle Joseph said. "You know, we have to protect our home court and if we're serious about going to the next level in this program, then you've got to show up at home."
Looking at the box score, the Hurricanes had an effective field goal percentage of 52.6 percent. Georgia Tech's effective field goal percentage - which counts 3-pointers as 1 1/2 field goals - was 39.2 percent. Miami were simply more effective shooters than Georgia Tech. The rest of the box score is a wash, pretty much balanced in all other respects save field goal shooting.
So that should be the explanation for Miami's 11-point win. They shot better. It seems strangely unappetizing, because the explanation is a 'what' and not a 'why'.
No one's statistics look out of kilter - except for Riquna Williams, the junior guard out of Miami. She scored 32 points in this game, off 11-for-20 shooting and 4-for-6 from the 3-point line. Her 32 points was one off her season high this year against Boston College and two off her career high.
"I thought that Riquna Williams obviously was huge for them," Joseph said. "Any time you've got a player that's going to get you thirty points every night and you've got another player [junior guard Shenise Johnson] that's going to get you twenty that's a nice thing to go into a game with."
The signature moment of the game - to me anyway - occurred in the second half. Miami has a 46-40 lead and a media time-out had been called with 11:56 left. It had been a back-and-forth game with the lead changing hands 10 times. Coming out of the timeout, Miami gets the ball to Riquna Williams on the left side of the court behind the 3-point line and she drills it. Miami now has a 49-40 lead, its largest lead of the game.
Tech comes right back. Deja Foster gets an offensive rebound off a missed Tyaunna Marshall layup and puts it in to close to within 49-42. Miami has the ball back and their possession is interrupted by a foul by Foster. With clock almost expiring, Miami freshman center Selina Archer finds Williams again, in almost the same spot of the court. Left center of the 3-point arc, further back from before.
As time is about to expire on the shot clock Williams lets go with an arcing shot over the Tech defense. It goes in for Williams's second consecutive 3-pointer. The Hurricanes now lead by 10 points, 52-42, and it seems that from that moment on Miami is keeping Georgia Tech at arm's length.
"I don't think that there's a guard in the country that can rise up and shoot over people the way she does," Joseph said. "It's phenomenal to watch. And she's fearless. That's the thing that makes her a great scorer."
The Yellow Jackets will never get any closer than six points from that moment on, and Miami's victory is iced with Georgia Tech down by seven with a minute to go and with the Yellow Jackets forced to play hack-a-Hurricane.
I wondered if Riquna Williams's 32-point game by itself might have been the margin of victory. Shenise Johnson also scored in double-digits for Miami but with six players playing 29 minutes or more, Miami's scoring was less balanced than Georgia Tech's. Doesn't a team want balance in its scoring options, rather than depending on one player? A player that enemy defenses might be able to contain?
I decided to perform a simple experiment, with my good old friend the Excel spreadsheet. I created two imaginary teams, each with only five players for simplicity. Team A is the "balanced" team where every player averages 10 points. Team B is an "unbalanced" team with a 20-point scorer, two 10-point scorers and two five-point scorers. Both Team A and Team B average 50 points a game.
I then added some variation. The two five-point scorers can have points per game ranging from 2.5 to 7.5. The 10-point scorers on all the teams can range from 5 to 15. The lone 20-point scorer on Team B can range from 10 to 30.
The next step was to generate some random games and see which teams was most likely to win. Team A was able to beat Team B almost 63 percent of the time. This fit conventional basketball knowledge - clearly, if the 20-point player on Team B is having a bad night, Team B's ability to win is seriously impaired.
The following step was to make then make sure that the 20-point player on Team B had a good night. I gave that player all 30 points that she could possibly earn, and let everything else be decided by random chance. The result was that with Team B's breakout game, Team B beat Team A almost 84 percent of the time. Teams might live and die by players like Riquna Williams, but when those players heat up their teams become almost unstoppable.
If you look at the box score, Williams scored 13 points in the first half, turning the ball over four times. But in the second half she scored 19 points, turning the ball over twice. Miami's effective field goal margin blows up from four percent to 13 percent. When a player gets a hot hand, that player's team becomes that much harder to beat.
A name for this might be the "Cinderella Effect", due to a profile possessed by many teams that earn upset wins in the first round of the NCAA men's tournament. The profile is three-fold
1. the team virtually sweeps its conference in the regular season
2. the team is coming into the NCAA tournament on a long winning streak
3. the team is carried by one (or two players), and those players have breakout games.
The first two parts of the profile simply establish that the team is used to winning games, accounting for the psychological element. The team isn't scared by the name on the enemy jersey. (You could call such fear the "UConn Effect".) But the final part indicates something that's true even for non-championship games - if you let a team's big player have a breakout game, you'll find yourself playing catch-up for the rest of the game. Montgomery's 13 points and freshman guardTyaunna Marshall's 15 points were around average, but Williams was playing one level higher.
(* * *)
Alex Montgomery finished the game with 13 points and 11 rebounds, her 19th double-double as a Georgia Tech player with 10 double-doubles this season. Tyaunna Marshall scored 15 points, and junior center Sasha Goodlett had six points and 13 rebounds. Goodlett's rebound total tied her career high.
In addition to William's 32 points for the Hurricanes and Johnson's 13, freshman forward Morgan Stroman scored eight points and 11 rebounds. Selina Archer added eight points on 4-for-4 shooting in limited minutes.
* Joseph spoke about how defense ties in with the Georgia Tech offense. "If we don't score, we can't set our presses. And obviously, our presses are the strength of our team. That was something that really hurt us tonight."
* During the first half of the game, only six personal fouls were called against Georgia Tech and only eight against Miami. It was definitely a physical game. Joseph mentioned officiating consistency or the lack thereof but denied that it contributed to the loss. "The outcome of this game was based on us being able make shots."
* One of the fans had a sign in Swedish, but it was hard to tell who the fan was rooting for. There were four Swedes among both rosters - the three Georgia Tech players and sophomore guard Stefanie Yderstrom from Miami.
* The most amazing thing about Miami's squad? The team has no seniors. Barring injury or transfer, all of Miami's roster will return next season.