Thursday, February 09, 2012

Heels Heartbreak and Pats Parallels

Heels heartbreakEarlier this week I wrote a little about that wild, weird Super Bowl XLVI, ending the post with a statement about how since I didn’t necessarily care whether the Patriots or Giants won, I was thus able “to enjoy the strategic thinking and execution without all the associated anxiety and stress that stems from having a strong rooting interest.”

Last night’s UNC-Duke basketball game -- in some ways uncannily similar, actually, to how the Pats-Giants game went -- proved that concluding point. Most painfully.

As a longtime Heels fan -- and, necessarily, Blue Devils hater -- it was most upsetting to see UNC enjoy a 10-point lead over Duke with just over two minutes left, then watch everything go terribly wrong over the final stretch to lose the game 85-84.

I say the game was similar because just like the Super Bowl, the winning team (Duke/NYG) led for almost the entire first half, with the losing team (UNC/NE) grabbing the lead just before halftime. Then the losing team came out hot to start the second half to build a significant lead, the Heels going up by as much as 13 and New England by eight, maintaining the advantage all of the way to the very end before giving up the lead amid a dramatic sequence of events.

And in both cases, the losing team (UNC/NE) made mistakes and the winning team (Duke/NYG) made big plays to help decide the outcome.

Austin Rivers delivers heartbreak to the HeelsAfter Duke had attempted more than 30 three-point shots leading up to that conclusion (making about a third of them), the game had come down to a situation in which there was no possible way the Blue Devils could come back without trying -- and making -- a few more threes. And somehow UNC let them do exactly that.

Duke made a three three-pointers in the last two-plus minutes, with UNC fouling them on one by Seth Curry to make it a four-point play. And the only three-pointer they missed during that stretch the Heels’ Tyler Zeller unfortunately tapped into the basket to give Duke two points.

Of course, one big difference between the games was the fact that New England purposely let the Giants make the go-ahead score at the end so as to preserve time on the clock to try to score themselves. UNC didn’t exactly let Duke score the winning basket -- the last of those three-pointers -- as the clock expired last night, but it kind of felt that way to a Heels fan watching Tyler Zeller inexplicably give Austin Rivers a few feet of space to allow him to launch his winning shot uncontested.

As I say, I’m emotionally invested here, so I’m not going to claim to be seeing all of this as clearly as I might otherwise. But there was something exquisitely painful about losing to Duke at home in such a way -- again, not unlike Tom Brady and the Pats getting that chance at some revenge against Eli Manning and the Giants after the heartbreak of losing to them in Super Bowl XLIV to ruin their perfect season, then losing again... and in a similarly heartbreaking way, too.

Super Bowl XLVII keep thinking about that Super Bowl XLVI, especially the way it played out with New England letting the Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw score that go-ahead touchdown despite his own apparent efforts to avoid doing so.

The game began with NE winning the coin toss, then deferring, giving the Giants the ball to start the game so as to get it to start the second half. And it kind of ended the same way, with NE deferring, too, giving the Giants the score so as to get the ball back.

I’ve been hearing some commentators offering criticism about the ending, for instance ESPN writer Tim Keown in a column titled “Unworthy End to Super Bowl XLVI.” Like others, Keown is complaining that even though it was correct for New England to concede the touchdown, he believes it was “not a proud or particularly dignified way to decide the Super Bowl.”

I think Keown and others making this complaint are failing to appreciate how the strange turn of events at the end of Super Bowl XLVI helped demonstrate how football is in fact a strategically-interesting game, perhaps more so than some other sports. That is to say, I didn’t think that ending detracted one bit from the Super Bowl and in fact made it all the more interesting.

Keown describes what happened at the end of Super Bowl XLVI as “a true sports anomaly,” claiming how “there is no other situation in American sports in which a team would make a similar strategic decision.” He recognizes and lists some “loose parallels in other sports,” but maintains that nowhere else is there an equivalent situation “that call[s] for a team to relinquish its lead at the end of a game as a means of facilitating a comeback win.”

Epic PokerWe poker players are very familiar with the concept of giving up something now in order to give ourselves a chance to win later, such as in a tournament where we might even have to fold what we think is a better hand in order to keep some chips with which to try to mount a comeback and win. I explored that idea some earlier this week in a “Community Cards” column over at Epic Poker, “Poker-Like Plotting at Super Bowl XLVI.”

Sure, poker isn’t really a sport, but it has a lot in common with many sports, particularly on the strategic-level. And here I think it might help make what was happening at the end of the Pats-Giants game a little more understandable -- and not so “unworthy.”

I suppose poker could also help me come to grips with that collapse by my Tar Heels last night against Duke. When I woke up today and remembered what happened, it really did feel a lot like remembering having lost big in a session of poker the night before. A session in which I might have experienced some bad luck but mostly played poorly in order to ensure my loss and add to the bad feelings about how it all went.

But I’m going to refrain from studying that game any further. Hurts too much.

Rounders RadioBy the way, if you want to hear me talk about other things -- i.e., all poker-related and most assuredly not about the UNC-Duke game -- I’m going to be a guest tonight on the “Keep Flopping Aces” podcast hosted by Lou Krieger and Shari Geller. The show goes from 9-10 p.m. Eastern time and can be heard live on Rounder’s Radio. And if you miss the live show you can always grab the archived podcast (look for 2-9-12).

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