The Most Unlikely College Basketball Result of 2010

I have been working on a long term project to create a database of results of college basketball teams on what Ken Pomeroy has called “high leverage” possessions. Namely, possessions in which a team is at best tied and at worst three points down at the end of the game (their last possession). This project is progressing well, and I know it will produce some very interesting results about the efficacy of timeouts in such possessions. During the work for this project, however, I came across this game between Cal St Fullerton and Cal St Northridge.

Played by two mediocre teams in a small major conference, and finishing at about 1 AM Eastern, this game was consigned to anonymity, destined to be noticed only by fans of those teams and those who scour college basketball scores. But even the people who did know about this game could not know just how rare of an event they witnessed. They couldn’t, that is, until now.In regulation, Cal St Fullerton was down three points with 10 seconds left. Cal St Northridge elected not to foul, allowing Devon Peltier to hit a three-pointer with four seconds remaining to send the game to overtime. As I will detail in a later post, the empirical evidence seems to strongly suggest that fouling up three is the correct play, but that is merely an aside here. The fireworks were only just beginning.

In the first overtime, Cal St Fullerton again found themselves trailing with the clock winding down, this time by 2 points. Gerard Anderson drew a shooting foul with 13 seconds left and hit both free throws, sending the game to a second extra period. Again in double overtime, Cal St Northridge chose not to foul up three with 8 seconds left, allowing Eric Williams to hit another 3 pointer to send the game to a 3rd and final overtime.

The third overtime ended in one of the most unlikely ways possible: Cal St Northridge, seemingly having learned their lesson, fouled Gerard Anderson while up three with four seconds left. Unbelievably, Anderson made the first and purposefully missed the second; Eric Williams got the offensive rebound and scored on the putback tying the game up. Williams was fouled on the play, and made the free throw, ultimately winning the game  for the Titans. Cal St Northridge went from an almost assured win up three points to a loss in one sequence.

Just how unlikely was the combination of possessions that allowed Cal St Fullerton to prevail? Using my database of over 1000 end of game possessions and assuming that end of game possessions are independent (a fair assumption, I think), we can calculate the odds. Teams down 3 points in such a situation as CSF found themselves twice scored at least three points 61 times out of 301 possessions. Teams down two scored at least two points 126 times out of 236 possessions. And teams down three points scored four points only one time (Cal St Fullerton) out of 301 times.

Multiplying these together and converting to odds by using the operation (100/result) – 1, we find that the odds of these four events happening are roughly 13,286 to 1. I say roughly because the numbers will change slightly as I add to the database, but as a baseline number, this is a good estimation.

This would appear to be one of the most unlikely sporting event outcomes in recent memory. And to say that this event has been forgotten would be wrong, because it would imply that it was remembered in the first place. Just another reminder of why we love sports.

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