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Another Epic Sports Failure Nightmare crushes the dreams of Tucsonans

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I realize that spring actually started in January and everything bloomed about a month early (the new normal), but the official passing of the equinox—combined with some excruciating episodes and epiphanies—has me in a philosophical mood.

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast," Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Man. Many have interpreted this as a riff on the endless capacity of humans to look forward to a better day. If you read the subsequent lines, you might come to a more cynical conclusion: "Man never is, but always to be blessed: The soul, uneasy and confined from home, rests and expatiates in a life to come."

I take that to mean we're perpetually screwed and there ain't a damn thing we can do about it except dream of a different world. "You'll get yours in heaven." Not only do I not buy that, I feel compelled to militate against it. In the context of a lifelong pantheon of Epic Sports Failure Nightmares (ESFN), I've adapted the quote: "Spring hopes are eternal."

It certainly is ESFN time of year. The college basketball season has culminated with the usual final flameout. Every year that does not produce a national championship ends in a cruel extinguishment, with a loss that lingers through the summer in the souls of participants and spectators alike.

Allow me an edgy eulogy. Never in four decades of watching this sport have I seen a call quite like the offensive foul assessed against Nick Johnson in the final seconds of Arizona's disappointing loss to the Wisconsin Badgers in the regional final. A barely extended forearm push-off is a ticky-tack call even in the first 39 minutes of a game, but with three seconds left in overtime and the Final Four on the line? You gotta be kidding. Standard operating procedure for referees in that situation is to swallow the whistle so deep they'd have to fart to call a foul.

Alas, the zebra farted, and Johnson and the faithful were denied. But that call did not seal Arizona's fate, because Rondae Hollis-Jefferson—aka "The Human Panther"—pounced on Wisconsin's inbounds pass and forced a turnover that gave our beloved Wildcats one more chance at heroic deliverance. Tragically, they ran an utterly predictable play, and although Johnson made another valiant attempt at the winning basket, the clock expired a split second before the ball left his hand.

Two chances, but no chance. They couldn't get a legal shot off either time—the ultimate ESFN futility.

Here I must digress. I'm confounded by what passes for conventional wisdom regarding end-of-game situations in college basketball these days. Where is the logic in standing around while one guy dribbles out the clock—taking the life and rhythm out of your offense—and then jacks up some ridiculous shot at the last second that has little hope of going in? What is the justification for playing 39 1/2 minutes with a full team and then the last 30 seconds with one guy?

Run the damn offense! Take the first good shot, no matter who has it. And fer chrissakes, do it with enough time left to allow for delays, detours and disasters! (Not to mention offensive rebounds.) I'll wager that the dismal shooting percentage produced by the conventional wisdom easily outweighs its perceived benefits.

Granted, Arizona only had 2.3 seconds left on that final possession, but everybody in the arena and 10 million TV viewers knew that Nick Johnson would take the shot, and practically everybody in a Badger uniform chased him while he tried to do it. On top of that, the poor kid was visibly shaken by the call that went against him moments earlier. How can you reasonably expect success in that context? Why not run the same set on the inbounds play, but use Johnson as a decoy instead? The Panther was crouched and ready!

All right, enough Sunday-morning coaching. It happened the way it did, and that's all that matters. You shouldn't blame the refs, the coaches, the players, conventional wisdom, the tides or even Alexander Pope (dense, pompous blusterer that he was). And you definitely shouldn't riot when your team loses a regional final. (Really, what kind of bush-league "fan" does that? Grow up, people! Act like you've been there before. This is ARIZONA, not Wanna-Be Tech.)

But you can say that Pope was wrong—just because it happened does not make it right, or inevitable. You needn't accept ESFN as your inescapable destiny or resign yourself to pondering a life to come. You can learn and devise a better way. You can defy your fate and win the day.

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