Sunday, March 17, 2013

Call it the Valparaiso: Breaking down Mercy's game-winning buzzer beater in the Class LL championship game

It will go down as one of the greatest finishes in the history of Connecticut high school basketball.

Mercy senior Maria Weselyj, with the weight of three consecutive title-game losses on her shoulders, sank a game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift her Tigers to the Class LL state championship. If you didn't read all about it, check out Jim Bransfield's piece here.

So let's break it down.

We can't begin without drawing immediate comparisons to the Valparaiso play in the 1998 NCAA tournament. Trailing by two with 2.5 seconds left, Valparaiso's Jaime Sykes heaved an inbounds pass beyond halfcourt, Bill Jenkins leapt for the ball, caught it, then quickly dished to a streaking Bryce Drew up the right side for a game-winning 3-pointer. Here it is:

Eerily similar, right?

Anyway, back to Mercy. The concept of the play is the same: inbounds heave, leap-catch-pass, streaking player catches and shoots. Let's check it out in slow motion:

It really becomes more amazing every time you watch it. Lauralton Hall played great defense (though they decided not to defend the inbounder, Sheena Landy), and actually got a hand in Weselyj's face right at the end. Let's go step by step:

The Pass

To this point, senior Sheena Landy was better known for her feet. She's an all-conference soccer player, and will play at Trinity next year. 

But this throw is really something. It's a deliberate, one-handed launch. The shoulder turn comes right on time, like a tennis serve or baseball pitch. And the way she follows through is reminiscent of a golfer, almost trying to will the ball exactly where she wants it.

The Catch

As soon as the ball is in the air, all five Lauralton Hall defenders move toward it. Senior Olivia Levey hangs back as a safety, but if you freeze the video at 0:14 you'll see a wide-open Weselyj running up the sideline -- no one's looking at her.

That's not Lauralton's fault, per se  most defenses would probably focus on that 50-foot inbounds pass with only a couple seconds on the clock. If a Lauralton defender catches it, somehow bats it back beyond halfcourt or forces a jump ball, this game is probably over.

So Weselyj is wide open, but it's really the result of a high-risk play. Mercy will get a decent shot if the inbound-catch-pass combination works, but it's going to take some magic for that combo to happen.

Especially because Lauralton played it so well. As the ball starts to descend, Emma McCarthy and Carly Fabbri get in prime position in front of Mercy senior Cassie Santoro. Maura Fitzpatrick, the other Tiger up for the jump ball, leaps forward too early and falls out of the play.

So basically, it's Santoro against three Crusaders: McCarthy and Fabbri in front, Levey behind. Pause the video at 0:15. There's no way Mercy comes up with it.

But it does. Santoro does. By some grace of the hoop gods, the basketball gets above/through the hands of Fabbri and McCarthy and into the palms of Santoro  who showed off some great control as she grabbed the ball in midair. And she maintains possession and sends a chest pass to Weselyj.

Anyway, first time I watched this bit in slow motion, I immediately thought of:

The 'Bryce Drew'

Here's where it all happens.

The first two phases worked: Landy's heave found Santoro, Santoro's catch-and-dish found Weselyj.

But this happens hundreds of times every season. In close/tied games, teams manage to execute pretty well their go-to-last-second play (as this was for Mercy). But it all comes down to the shot.

No one blames Weselyj if she misses it. She was still running when she caught the ball. She was off-balance. Lauralton's Levey does a suprisingly good job reacting, moving to the ball and getting a hand up. It even looks like the two make contact, as Weselyj's right leg seems to kick out.

It's no one's fault. It's a play-and-shot combination that works once in a hundred tries.

Then it went in. And it gave Mercy the win they so craved the last three years, and a championship they wanted so badly for so long.

Coincidence? I think not.

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