- Glenn Nelson, ESPNHS HoopGurlz
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The score, 16-7, screams at you like a cat that just had its tail run over. It's more like a first-quarter score. Or a football score.
Springfield (Ore.) won its second straight Oregon 5A state girls basketball championship by that count on Saturday night. The wailing against the losing coach, Paul Brothers of Willamette (Eugene, Ore.), began almost immediately.
What in the name of James Naismith's peach baskets had Brothers done? He did what people in the business call "taking the air out of the basketball" or "sitting on the ball." Don't take either term literally. The lay translation: Stalling.
Better for the ball to stay in the hands of his Wolverines, Brothers figured, than end up in the destructive mitts of Springfield's 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell, a player so good ESPN HoopGurlz ranks her as the No. 1 college prospect in the 2013 class.
"Mercedes is the biggest game-changer, girl or boy, the state of Oregon has ever produced," Brothers said by phone on Monday, after some of the smoke had cleared. "We basically tried everything against her the first two games we played. What was left was what we did."
I don't blame him, but a lot of people do. One email suggests ESPN look into whether "loopholes and cheating are the new norm in sports." Cheating? Put away those torches and pitchforks, people. Brothers and Willamette didn't break any rules. Like a majority of states, Oregon does not use a shot clock in high school basketball, so Willamette was free to hold the ball as long as it liked -- not that it liked much of the time that it did.
Plus, if there was a crime against our sporting sensibilities and sense of fair play, Springfield was a partner in it. If a defender is established within six feet of a player in possession of the ball in the frontcourt (i.e. "closely guarded"), that player has five seconds to pass or advance the ball. Partly because Springfield chose not to engage defensively, the game turned into a scene played out on the back steps of high schools across the country -- a bunch of kids milling around, waiting for the next period to begin.
As one wise hoops philosopher (OK, character Omar Little of the HBO series, "The Wire") once uttered, "It's all in the game, yo. All in the game."
Stalling is as American as Dean Smith. In the U.S. Senate, it's called filibustering. It's even got its uses in everyday life. Got a deadline? Stall and, in a late flurry of activity, finish up and come out on top. That's all Willamette set out to do.
The Wolverines already had lost twice to Springfield, 49-46 and 57-35 in Midwestern League play, and didn't lose to anyone else all season. Springfield had Russell, who can be ferocious in the post, but who can also dribble in the open floor and shoot mid-range jumpers like a guard, which she was until her growth spurt. If pressed, most college evaluators will say they've not seen a high school player like her since Candace Parker.
In the state 5A semifinals, Brothers had to use Brittany Glassow, his tallest player at 5-11, to defend Samantha Siegner of West Albany. Ranked No. 92 in the 2012 class by ESPN HoopGurlz, the Oregon State-bound Siegner is 6-3 but plays more of a perimeter game than Russell. Siegner had 19 points on Friday night; Russell, who is three inches taller with a more diverse and developed skill set, dropped a combined 61 points in two previous games against zone defenses and double-teams by Willamette.
In other words, if Russell got the ball, Brothers knew his Wolverines were tantamount to road kill against a runaway Mercedes.
Willamette spent about 30 minutes on Saturday morning installing a four-corners offense much like the one invented by Smith, the Hall of Fame former coach at North Carolina. So when Glassow dribbled across halfcourt with the first possession of the second quarter, she knew to promptly stop. The possession lasted until she turned the ball over with six seconds remaining in the period. The first half ended with Springfield leading 4-0. Being a two-possession game, Willamette in the second half played a more attacking, yet still deliberate style.
Consider this: After Springfield dismantled Bend 53-23 in the state 5A semifinals, the lead in the Oregonian newspaper asked, "Bored yet?" The implication was that a pedestrian, 30-point blowout was about as compelling as, um, a 16-7 opus during which 10 teens mostly stood around on a floor, staring at each other, and neither a DJ nor text messaging was involved.
So, bored if you do, bored if you don't.
And guess what? You can find video on the Internet of Springfield celebrating a state championship just as raucously as if they'd won the game, say, 53-23. The Willamette girls didn't have to feel devastated about losing by a large margin, nor did they have to feel as if they'd tried to take an easy way out. Anyone who has coached young people knows the discipline and level of skill required to run large chunks of time off a game clock.
"I didn't like doing that," said Brothers, who once played quarterback at Oregon State. "I wish Oregon would adopt a shot clock and take the option off the table. But I wouldn't be a very good coach if I made my team go toe to toe with them again."
We're not talking about the NBA, or the college game, for that matter. So this isn't about entertainment. This is about a coach having a game to win and doing anything imaginable, anything within the rules, to help his players win it.
If stalling is a loophole then so is taking deductions on your income taxes. People may not like it, but teams take "intentional" fouls to stop the clock while trailing at the end of close games. Coaches call timeouts to "ice" a kicker or free-throw shooter. Batters will bunt to break up a no-hitter in the ninth. None of these is against any rules.
I once had my basketball team hold the ball during a high-profile summer tournament. My team of small, quick guards was playing a team twice our size. If we played them straight up, we would have been crushed; if they pressed the action defensively, we would have dribbled around them and scored at an unguarded basket. So both teams stood and stared at each other, so long the other coach and I engaged in casual conversation at midcourt. His assistants were apoplectic. He told them to be quiet and relax.
"Tactics," the opposing head coach said. "I understand completely."
Such sentiment should apply to a slowly evolved Saturday evening in Eugene, Ore., and its quick-to-judge aftermath. Those who don't like Stall Ball have a better outlet: Get the rules changed. Heck, in the name of Paul Brothers, as well as Dean Smith, Mike Fratello and the rest of basketball's deliberate denizens, file the new mandates under section 16-7. Those numbers already have a certain ring to them, after all.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.