In an exclusive interview with Swish Appeal, Phoenix Mercury Head Coach Corey Gaines explained his decision not to foul or pressure the ball during a key final San Antonio possession. Gaines also explained Cappie Pondexter's confusion about the score on the final shot of the game and talked about what adjustments he might make for game 2.
During the broadcast the ESPN crew suggested that Gaines might have been unaware of the game score and in my recap of the game, I was also critical of the decision. After hearing his explanation I still don't agree with the call but it is always easier to be watching the game than to be the guy with the clipboard making these decisions in real time.
Here's the sequence of events:
The Silver Stars have possession with a sideline out of bounds near mid court. There are 32 seconds on the clock and San Antonio has a 4 point lead. The Silver Stars inbound the ball to a wide open Ann Wauters who is alone in the back court and then quickly gets the ball to Becky Hammon.
The Mercury play a normal "straight up" defense and the Stars run down the 24 second clock taking and missing a three pointer. The Mercury rebound the ball with about 8 seconds and Cappie Pondexter races up the floor and gets a layup. The Silver Stars inbound under their basket with about 3 seconds left. By the time the Mercury can foul Hammon there's .9 seconds on the clock and the score is 91-88 San Antonio. Hammon hits both free throws giving her team a four point lead.
The Mercury call time out and advance the ball. They inbound to Penny Taylor who nails a long three pointer at the buzzer but the Mercury lose the game 92-91.
In that situation, down by four with 32 seconds left the standard play would be to foul and extend the game. If the Mercury foul quickly and the Stars hit both shots they have the ball with about 30 seconds and a 6 point, two possession game. Another option is to pressure the ball hard to try and force a turn over or at least get the ball out of the hands of the other team's best free throw shooter and then foul whoever gets the pass. That takes a bit more time but at least creates the chance of a turnover and stops the clock.
Coach Gaines explained doing neither saying that once Becky Hammon got the ball his second option was to play solid defense and try and force a turnover and get possession back with 7 or 8 seconds left. With Hammon being a 90% free throw shooter and the rest of the team other than Ann Wauters shooting 85% he didn't want to be down six points.
Gaines said, "I know everyone's saying 'you should have fouled, you should have fouled' but if we foul it's a six point game. It's a six point game and you have to take a desperation three and get another three and you've got to foul again."
I asked Coach Gaines about trapping the ball out of Hammon's hands and he said that Tangela Smith was late getting back to cover Wauters which allowed Becky to get the ball and, "once she got the ball that was it".
From that point in the game with 8 seconds and a 4 point deficit, Gaines explained that the plan was to pull up for a three but Cappie went in for the two. Gaines said he was ok with that because the player went with what she saw. From there he had some question about how much time was taken off the clock and how it got down to .9 seconds so quickly but wasn't able to see if the officials were reviewing the replay during the final timeout.
On the final shot of the game, Coach Gaines said that Cappie's confusion came when she looked over to talk to him while Hammon was taking her free throws. Cappie missed seeing them both go in and in her mind didn't register that they had. He also said that the score board in the arena was late posting the second point which added to her confusion. She was the only one that wasn't clear about it being a four point game when Taylor took that shot.
The smiles and hugs after the loss were just a natural reaction to the situation and consistent with his style of coaching. "I learned that a long time ago from Georgetown when I was young. He called that timeout and he went and hugged his players and let them know it's ok."
Interestingly, Coach Gaines asked me what I would have done in that situation. I responded that I am not a big fan of fouling and extending the game but I would have pressured the ball harder to try and force the turnover or at least get the ball out of Hammon's hands.
As for adjustments for game two, Coach Gaines talked about turnovers saying that even though the total wasn't high (10) they came at crucial situations. We'll follow up on this tomorrow at shoot around.
I spoke with Coach Gaines about an hour before the news about DeWanna Bonner being named Sixth Woman of the Year was released from embargo. He talked about her energy and interestingly enough said, "Maybe if she has a better coach she'd have been starting this year and she probably would have got Rookie of the Year."
Listen to the full interview to get the full and fair sense of how Coach Gaines responded to these questions