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Don’t cry foul: Why Turgeon made the right choice to foul late

After Sunday’s emotional farewell to ACC regular seasons, many Maryland fans were happy to celebrate and dream of one more run through the conference tournament. But if the Terps had lost in overtime, fans would be singing a different tune.

Mark Turgeon told his team to foul late in the game Sunday.
Mark Turgeon told his team to foul late in the game Sunday.
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

For those who missed Sunday afternoon's game against Virginia, Maryland went up three with five seconds remaining following a late pair of Jake Layman free throws. Head coach Mark Turgeon elected to foul as Layman grabbed Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon near half court with three seconds remaining.

After converting the first, Brogdon intentionally missed the second, and the Cavaliers were awarded the ball on a close out-of-bounds call with less than two seconds left. Virginia executed a perfect in-bounds play to find a wide-open Anthony Gill for the tying layup to force overtime.

With another late lead squandered, many fans were again pointing the finger at Coach Turgeon. But here’s why Turgeon and Maryland made the right call, but executed it poorly

The Decision:

Most coaches openly admit to being for or against fouling when up three late. It’s a commonly debated basketball topic with plenty of examples supporting both sides. Stats guru KenPom posted a breakdown last season. According to Pomeroy, who went through similar late-game scenarios from the 2009-10 college season to 2012-13, the difference is small. Teams who fouled won (either in regulation or in overtime) 92% of the time. Teams who let it play out and defend won 93% of those games.

Every situation offers varying percentages. Coaches know all of these well before tip-off. And here’s why the percentages told Turgeon that fouling was the right call.

The Numbers

The decision itself isn’t too complicated. Actually, it’s rather simple – foul or defend. As it turns out, the reasoning is fairly simplistic as well. If you foul, three things have to happen for the opponent to force overtime (or perhaps win). When you defend, the opponent only needs to make a three to force an extra period.

If Maryland had chosen to defend, Virginia had five seconds – more than enough time to go the length of the court – to find an open three-point shot. This season, Virginia shoots 36.9% on three-pointers, the third-best mark in the ACC. To account for the situation and the likely increased difficulty of the shot, let’s adjust the number down to an even 35%.

So, if Maryland had elected not to foul, Virginia had a 35% chance to force overtime (assuming enough time runs off that they would not have a second-chance opportunity)

Now, since Maryland chose to foul, Virginia had to convert three plays. These scenarios are more complex, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll narrow it down to the exact situation in Sunday’s game.

The Cavaliers had two routes to tying the game after the Terps fouled. The obvious one (which played out) was making the first free throw, intentionally missing the second, securing the rebound and making a two-point field goal (or a three for the win). The other option would have been if Virginia misses the first free throw, they then have to grab the board after the intentional miss and make a three.

Again, this accounts for Virginia being in the double bonus with no worry of losing the ball if they missed the first free throw.

Here’s where the math comes into play. Virginia only makes 66.1% of its free throws, 11th in the league. The Cavaliers rebound 34.7% of their offensive opportunities and shoot 48.6% on two-point shots.

Make free throw 66.1%
Offensive rebound 34.7%
Make 2-pt FG 48.6%

Since all three of them have to occur, Virginia only has a 11.1% chance to force overtime.

So, if Maryland had an 89% likelihood of winning in regulation after fouling (opposed to a 65% chance without fouling), what went wrong?

The Execution

The first part is arguably the hardest. Most coaches are scared away from fouling late since a player could throw up a prayer and earn three free throws. Easiest solution? Foul when the opponent nears half court to avoid any real shot attempt, which is what Maryland did.

Where Maryland made their first mistake was who they fouled. Maryland’s coaches made sure the players knew they were going to foul if it was a three-point game. Also, Maryland knows who shoots free throws best for Virginia, so denying those players the ball should be the top priority. The Terps failed here as the Cavaliers were able to get the ball to their best free-throw shooter, Malcolm Brogdon, who shoots 89% from the stripe.

As soon as Brogdon was fouled, Virginia’s chance to force overtime rose from 11.1% to 15.1%. If Maryland has been able to force the ball into Joe Harris’ hands, who shoots 63% on free throws, Virginia’s chances drop to 10.7%.

Make free throw 89.3%
Offensive rebound 34.7%
Make 2-point FG 48.6%

Brogdon makes the first free throw (never a given). This increased the Cavaliers’ shot at forcing overtime to 16.9%. Side note: A case could be made here for lowering that percentage, since Brogdon still has to intentionally miss the second. The likelihood to miss is obviously very high, but I’m sure most of us have seen a player try to miss and either a) accidentally make it or b) miss so badly that the ball doesn’t hit the rim (which automatically awards the ball to the defense).

To set up the rebound opportunity, Virginia had five of their six best offensive rebounders on the floor (Mike Tobey, Anthony Gill, Justin Anderson, Brogdon and Joe Harris).

On the Terps side, this is where Turgeon’s decisions come into question. Maryland was already at a disadvantage since their best defensive rebounder (Charles Mitchell) had fouled out earlier in the game.

With Mitchell out, Evan Smotrycz was Maryland’s best available defensive rebounder. The second best? Jonathan Graham. While Graham only played four minutes, he certainly would have been loose enough to box out and grab a rebound. Instead, Turgeon went with a lineup of Smotrycz, Shaquille Cleare, Jake Layman, Dez Wells and Seth Allen.

The worst rebounder in the lane when the second free throw went up? Dez Wells. Sure enough, the ball found Wells, who was unable to bring it in as the ball bounced out of bounds to Virginia.

And just like that, Virginia had 48.6% chance to force overtime (although you could argue a shot attempt with less than two seconds remaining would normally be a lower percentage than usual), including a chance to win outright.

Make free throw 100%
Offensive rebound 100%
Make 2-pt FG 48.6%

Defense time. Virginia subs out rebounders Tobey and Anderson for point guard London Perrantes and shooter Evan Nolte. Maryland subs out Cleare for Nick Faust. Cleare had been routinely beaten prior and is Maryland’s third-worst defender of their five-man rotation. Their worst, though? Smotrycz, who allows 0.96 points per possession to his man. For context, that’s 85th among 92 ACC players with at least 100 defensive plays this season.

Maryland’s best big-man defender? Jonathan Graham, who allows 0.78 points per possession (which would be 29th of 92 if he qualified). But Graham remained on the bench as Smotrycz was unable to fight through a screen or communicate with Wells to prevent the lob pass for the close-in typing shot.

Again, right call, poor execution. Even after Maryland allowed Virginia’s best free-throw shooter the ball, he made the first free throw and the Terps allowed the offensive rebound after a questionable lineup choice, the difference between defending against a three from the beginning (35%) to Virginia having the ball down two with less than two seconds (48%) is only 13%. A lot had to go right for the Cavaliers just to earn that extra 13%, and Maryland did them a few favors along the way.

Ultimately, all is forgiven since Maryland held on to win. But if the Terps find themselves in a similar situation in the ACC tournament, don’t assume the same outcome. Every situation is different, but for Maryland (a poor defensive team, but a solid rebounding team), fouling is usually the right choice.