Tony Wroten played maybe the best game of his college basketball career on Thursday, but odds are you don’t know that. What you do know, if you’re any kind of an NCAA fan, is that Wroten missed four free throws in the final minute of an 86-84 loss to the Oregon State Beavers in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, all of which would have given the Washington Huskies the lead.
The storyline is obvious: Wroten choked. And, as a Washington alum, I’m probably as bothered by that narrative as I am a loss that might have knocked the Huskies off the bubble.
The question isn’t whether the pressure of the moment got to Wroten, because there’s ample subjective evidence that it did. Wroten’s improving form fell to shambles as he aimed the ball toward the rim rather than shooting it. His last two misses were nowhere in the immediate vicinity.
No, the question is whether Washington would ever have been in position to win without Wroten. After the Huskies struggled offensively in the first half, managing just 33 points, Wroten took control of the game after halftime. Oregon State could not keep him out of the paint as their defense bent and broke time and again. Wroten got to the free throw line 15 times, and the remarkable thing was that the middling shooter made seven in a row from the 12:04 mark of the second half through the 1:18 mark, when his pair of free throws put Washington up four.
Yet the Huskies, playing small because center Aziz N’Diaye fouled out after 22 minutes of action, were unable to get the stops that would have allowed them to pull away. The Beavers scored on 10 of their last 12 possessions, and the lone exceptions were times when Jared Cunningham went to the line and missed two free throws.
During that stretch, Wroten was the Washington offense. He and C.J. Wilcox were the lone Huskies to score between the nine-minute mark and Terrence Ross getting intentionally fouled with seconds left on the clock. The one time Washington did go to Ross and not Wroten, he committed a charging foul that gave Oregon State the ball back in position to take the lead with 43 seconds remaining.
Over the course of the game, Wroten made nine of 15 free throw attempts. His teammates shot 3-of-12, including 1-of-4 from Ross (who missed his last shot on purpose) and 1-of-3 from Wilcox, an 85.7 shooter at the charity stripe for the season.
This is my problem with discussions of how players respond in the clutch. It’s not that pressure doesn’t exist–we saw some statistical evidence of it in one of the presentations at last week’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference–or that it doesn’t affect some players differently than others. The issue is that how we apply this definition is random and changes depending on the final outcome. Through his last four free throws, no one had come up clutch more than Wroten on Thursday. At the same time, Wroten’s misses saved Cunningham–who had just missed two free throws to extend the lead and foolishly fouled Wroten some 35 feet away from the basket–from wearing the goat’s horns.
There’s a thin line between clutch and choke.