The Art of the Second Half: What I've Learned from a Series of Unfortunate Events (Opinion)
The second half - one of the most revered yet loved things about timed sports. For some, it's their favorite part of the game; where their team keeps the lead or comes back to win. For others, however, it's their least favorite part of the game; where their team is unable to get the lead in a close game or when their team loses a lead. This article (and I'm warning you now, it won't be short) will be my opinion on the second half of timed sports games.
For a lot of teams I favor in games, big or small (such as my adopted hometown's Virginia Cavaliers and the Atlanta Falcons), the first half goes great for them. Take Super Bowl LI for example, which happened tonight. The Falcons played phenomenally in the first half, devastating New England's #1 defense and racking up 21 points in the first half, versus New England's 3 (coming exclusively from a field goal). They were penetrating the defense and racking up impressive yards and catches, despite Julio Jones' toe injury and Alex Mack's fractured fibula. They looked unstoppable, despite being the underdogs.
In UVA's loss against Syracuse on February 4 (and I can reference this back to their loss in the Elite 8 in the NCAA Men's tournament last year as well), they played excellent in the first half, scoring 34 points versus Syracuse's 22 and leaving Syracuse's top scorer scoreless. In the Elite 8 game, it was a very similar situation, where UVA scored 35 points over Syracuse's 21. They looked dominant and were ranked a #1 seed in the tournament compared to Syracuse's #10.
But what I'm really here to talk about is the second half - the unknown fate of every team at halftime, which some hate and some love. The second half is what makes some games super popular, makes some games controversial, and even starts some rivalries between teams. It is what introduced the word "choke" to the sports world. Over the past few days, sports has just been a mess, with so much happening in so little time. Huge college basketball rivalries, huge NBA rivalries, Chris Berman's retirement, and of course the now infamous Super Bowl LI, the first and only Super Bowl to ever go to overtime.
What by halftime Falcons fans thought of as a done deal crumpled into one of the biggest collapses in all 51 of the Super Bowls and arguably one of the biggest collapses in sports history. During that second half, and particularly the fourth quarter, Atlanta looked like the Falcons of previous years, not 2016. They were committing big-time turnovers and were letting New England's players through rather large defensive pockets to allow touchdowns. They were getting holding calls that didn't do anything but damage the team more. In that half, they allowed 25 points; 19 alone in the fourth quarter. That is unheard of in the Super Bowl, especially when Atlanta's offense is ranked #1 in the NFL. Yes, you can argue that New England's defense is also #1 in the country, and that they just weren't playing like the New England Patriots that many have grown to know and love in recent years. That is 100% a valid reason, and is part of the reason that Atlanta fell. You could also argue that the momentum in the first half was killed during halftime, which is definitely true. That is one large reason why teams fail in the second half; they build up so much momentum in the first half that they are unable to retain in the second half.
But that is only one or two reasons. I have respect for Bill Belichick, one of the best coaches in NFL history, and Tom Brady, arguably the best quarterback in NFL history with 5 Super Bowl rings. Belichick's defensive genius is one reason the Patriots were able to pull off that unprecedented second-half comeback and overtime win. Brady's high completion percentage combined with his overall strategy made him hard to compete with. But another reason that the Falcons fell to the Patriots tonight is that they just didn't play like the Atlanta Falcons that we had seen all throughout the NFL regular season and the first two games of the playoffs. All throughout the regular season, we had seen Matt Ryan DOMINATE the competition, throwing touchdown passes to 12 different receivers and setting the record for the most most consecutive games with 200+ passing yards with over 46 consecutive games. In the second half, he looked intimidated by the Patriots and played like it too. He threw short passes that didn't always get completed, got easily sacked a few times, and just overall looked uncomfortable. Same goes for the rest of the team, and this is why I think the Atlanta Falcons fell to the New England Patriots 34-28 in overtime in Super Bowl LI.
Let's go back to that February 4 UVA game vs. Syracuse. As I said previously (you might have forgotten it by now considering how long this article is), the 'Hoos crushed the first half, shooting great from the field and blacking out the Orange's top scorer. But in the second half things collapsed big-time. The 'Hoos turned the ball over at times that it was essential to not turn it over, missed easy shots, and poorly defended the Orange in all fronts, from the paint (allowing layups that could've easily been blocked) to the field (not guarding some essential 3's). Virginia also fouled good players many times, which led to free throws deciding the game. This game had a very close resemblance to UVA's loss to Syracuse in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Men's Tournament, where the 'Hoos led 35-21 at halftime but gave up 47 points in the second half to eventually lose 68-62. The final score of February 4th's game was 66-62.
In basketball, I think it has a lot more to do with momentum. Once a game breaks at halftime, all momentum of the team is lost for 10-15 minutes. When they come back to the court for the second half, their momentum is lost and this may lead to decreased "good" playing by the team who was leading at halftime.
One more thing that I think definitely contributes to these second half takedowns is the assumption that because the team is leading at halftime and played so well in the first half, they can easily play through the second half and win the game. This has been shown several times in the past few days, and countless times through many years. Another reason I think the Falcons lost the Super Bowl was they were overly confident in themselves heading into the second half, and that they thought they could easily win. This was of course not the case. I also expect this happened with UVA, especially because of how they had been playing recently. I feel that they were just overly confident in how they played in the first half and that they felt like they could continue that momentum into the second half. Just like with Super Bowl LI, this was not the case, and they got dominated in the second half. Of course, the circumstances of these games were very different, with the Super Bowl arguably being the biggest event in sports of the year and the UVA-Syracuse game being a regular season college basketball game, but that's besides the point.
So what's my point with all this? My point is that I think that there are a variety of factors leading to teams losing in the second half. One of them is a loss in momentum, with halftime being a calmer time for the team and being a time that some can lose adrenaline in. This leads to a team being a little more careless which can make a big difference and lead to a loss. Another is that the opposing team has 10-15 minutes to strategize and think of another way to come up from their first half putdown. Especially for strategic coaches, this can be a valuable thing to do and can lead to a win for that team because the team that is winning at halftime doesn't know about the new strategy. My final reason is that many teams think that it is a given that they will win the game if they're leading at halftime. This may seem like a stupid thing to list, but it is definitely something that goes through many players' minds and as much as we think it will disappear, it won't anytime soon. All of these points may seem like givens to many people, but you would be surprised that they are not as much of a given as you think they are.
But as much as people hate the second half for being detrimental to many teams, it's an essential element of every timed sports game and leads to some of the greatest plays and legends in all of sports. No matter if your team wins or loses, we should all take a second to appreciate what is the world of sports and how it has become what it is now.
Thank you to all who took the time to read this long article, and to whoever's reading this, have a great day. Enjoy sports, and the good things that happen.
EDIT 2/12/17 - At least half of what led to UVA's collapse in the second half today versus Virginia Tech had to do with this. Sure, the officiating was completely not in UVA's favor and some bad decisions were made, but UVA missing many free throws and easy shots had a lot to do with a super high confidence level which shot down the roof during the second half. Players were not making easy shots and were playing very tired, which led to their 2OT demise. UVA thought they had this game in the bag after the 20+ point blowout last week but they were too confident (just like versus Syracuse and Villanova) and didn't do all that they could to win. Compared to higher-level matchups like Louisville (who UVA beat twice), where UVA seemed at just the right confidence level, that wasn't the case tonight.
Argue all you want, but this is an opinion piece; please take your opinion for yourself or post it in the comments.