Kentucky and Arkansas seemed headed for a second overtime Tuesday night. Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Michael Qualls was at the rim dunking a rebound to give Arkansas the victory.
UK Coach John Calipari later spoke of fate playing a role in the outcome. It was unclear whether he meant an unseen cosmic force helped Arkansas or, more likely, he merely tried to disguise an all-too-human whine about the officiating.
If Calipari meant the former, he's hardly alone in sensing divine intervention. A survey announced on Thursday suggested that half of sports fans in this country believe that supernatural forces influence our games. About a quarter of all fans pray to God to ride to the rescue, the survey said. About the same number think a team can be cursed.
The survey was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute — a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., that seeks to inform the public about religious belief. Dan Cox, PRRI's director of research, said sports lends itself to a belief in the mysterious.
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"In sports, you see things that look miraculous," he said. "You see things that are sort of beyond belief. You say, 'How the heck did that just happen? That was absolutely miraculous.'"
PRRI interviewed 1,000 people about whether they believed God cared whether a sports team won or lost. Evangelicals and black Protestants were most likely to think God could be called upon to help a team.
"From their perspective, God plays a role in all things," Cox said. "It just makes sense to believe God is also involved in sports. ... They see God playing an active role in the world. Other religions see God as more of a passive force."
Mainline Protestants were less likely to believe God acts on behalf of teams or players.
By definition, atheists and agnostics do not believe in God. PRRI refers to such people as part of the "religiously unaffiliated group" or, more informally, "The Nones."
Interestingly, atheists and agnostics are not immune to belief in unseen forces influencing games. "They're just as likely as evangelicals to have their rituals," Cox said. That can be wearing a particular jersey, rubbing a friend's head for good luck or some other appeal for good fortune.
Kentucky fans might wonder whether God is a UK fan. Qualls dunked two-tenths of a second before the final buzzer. Christian Laettner hit the game-winning shot. LSU completed the winning touchdown pass as celebratory fireworks exploded over Commonwealth Stadium.
Yet, Brandon Knight hit winning shots against Princeton and Ohio State in Kentucky's improbable run to the 2011 Final Four. Cedric Jenkins tipped in a game-winner against Louisville. The Cats rallied from 31 down to beat LSU in a game known as, ahem, the Mardi Gras Miracle.
Of course, it's impossible to know whether God exists, let alone cares about sports.
"If only God would give me some clear sign!" Woody Allen once said. "Like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank."
Short of that, Cox noted a gap in how people generally perceive God's interest in sports.
"You see winners thank God for divine help sometimes," he said. "You don't see losers say, 'Where were you, God? You were supposed to help me out on that play.'"
Marking the occasion
With two-tenths of a second left, UK did not have much of an option at Arkansas. Aaron Harrison's desperation inbounds heave hit the scoreboard. That forced Arkansas to inbound the ball to officially end the game.
In case you missed it, the ball Harrison heaved remains lodged in the scoreboard.
That became a topic of conversation in Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson's news conference Thursday.
Question: Has the ball come out of the scoreboard yet? Or is it still up there?
Anderson: "No. We're going to leave it up there. We're going to leave that up here."
Q: Did you see that somebody supposedly offered $50,000 for the ball, according to a tweet by Director of Athletics Jeff Long?
Anderson: "Already? ... We're going to leave it up there. That's going to be a trivia (question). So when people come in there, they're going to wonder is that ball still up there or not? That's what they're going to ask."
Q: So you're really going to leave it up there?
Anderson: "For years to come. Yeah. Yeah. I think it's good. I think it's neat."
You may have noticed an uptick in carrying calls lately. That's a result of the so-called "new rules" in which referees try to reduce the contact in games and increase scoring by calling more fouls.
The new rules favor offenses. So the attention to carrying balances the scales by favoring the defender.
John Adams, the national coordinator of men's basketball officiating, explained.
"If you let the ball-handler dribble past you because you can't put a hand on him or an arm bar on him, and you let him carry the ball, you create a situation where you can't possibly defend the guy," he said. "... If I give him freedom of movement and the ability to carry the ball, I can't defend him."
So, Adams concluded, "don't be surprised if you see more carrying calls."
Eric Ward led an effort to use sports to build character when he was athletic director at Georgetown College, Now as commissioner of the Big South Conference, he is trying to emphasize character-building in the league.
Note to Ward: Cover your eyes.
The setting was Mustang Madness in McCracken County High School last weekend. Arsenal Tech, a team from Indiana ranked No. 7 nationally by MaxPreps.com, played Villa Angela St. Joseph High out of Ohio.
Each team had Kentucky connections. UK signee Trey Lyles led Arsenal Tech. Carlton Bragg, a top-10 junior for Villa Angela St. Joseph, is on UK's recruiting radar.
With Tech leading 79-76 in the final seconds of the fourth quarter, VASJ had the ball. About eight seconds remained as a VASJ player dribbled the ball between the foul line and center court circles.
An adult fan sitting behind the Arsenal Tech bench yelled, "3! 2! 1!" That prompted the VASJ player to throw up an off-balanced shot. The ball went out of bounds, giving possession to Tech with about four or five seconds left. They inbounded, got fouled and made one free throw to ice the game. Final score: 80-76.
When the ball went out of bounds, the adult fan turned to the people sitting next to him with a big grin on his face. He was pleased with himself. He was wearing a T-shirt that said "I (drawing of a heart) Tech."
Ben Roberts, who covers recruiting for the Herald-Leader, tweeted his reaction to the bit of trickery. "Note to adults watching HS games from the stands: Don't try to fool kids with '3-2-1 ...' trick," he tweeted. "You'll look like a jerk."
Ward found the incident unfortunate and sad. Noting that the word "fan" is short for fanatic, he said the Big South had a recent incident in which a mother cost a team a technical foul when she charged out of the stands to protest a hard foul committed on her daughter.
Why are fans increasingly willing to embarrass themselves in such ways? "Because they see coaches do that kind of thing all the time," Ward said.
Julius Randle did not experience cramps while playing 32 intense minutes at Arkansas. He'd had to leave two of the three most recent games because of cramping.
Randle credited improved food choices, which had been recommended by his family. "I think my diet had a lot to do with it this week," he said after the Arkansas game.
UK Coach John Calipari had recommended Randle practice to the point of cramping as a way to deal with the problem. Lexington-based orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist Ben Kibler said cramping in practice might help UK identify a cause.
Former UK star Tony Delk, who was hindered by cramping as a senior, noted the difference in practices and games.
"Practice and game intensity are different," he wrote in an email message. "I didn't cramp during practice. Games were my biggest issue."
As SEC play began, Bovada made Kentucky the best bet among league teams to win a national championship. The betting service put the odds of a UK title at 7-1. Florida was the second choice at 20-1.
The odds for the rest of the SEC teams were 66-1 (Missouri), 150-1 (Tennessee, LSU), 250-1 (Mississippi), 300-1 (Texas A&M), 500-1 (Vanderbilt, Alabama, Arkansas) and 1,000-1 (South Carolina, Georgia).
Bovada did not set odds for Mississippi State and Auburn.
TV analyst Joe Dean Jr. said the SEC will get more teams in the NCAA Tournament than last year's three.
"I'd be surprised if the league doesn't get five bids, maybe six," Dean said. "I think seven teams are good enough."
Alyssa Thompson, the 16-year-old UK fan who is a patient at Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital, hoped to see UK Coach John Calipari when the Cats played at Vandy last weekend. Better still, she hoped her favorite player, Jarrod Polson, might pay her a visit.
Neither happened, but Calipari sent Thompson an autographed picture and a letter of encouragement.
"She was excited," her mother, Angela Thompson, wrote in an email message.
A day after attending her first Kentucky basketball home game, Alyssa Thompson suddenly realized she couldn't move her legs. She has Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a chronic disease that affects the nervous system. She spent three weeks at the Cleveland Clinic last summer getting treatment.
Keep Jim Mitchell in your thoughts. Mitchell, 85, has been hospitalized since Christmas. Mitchell was a player for Lafayette High.
His coaching career included a seven-year stint at Mason County. Later, he was a fixture at UK games as a scout for the Los Angeles Clippers. He was always friendly and light-hearted, though no pollyanna in judging talent.
"A good man all around, one that I respected," said Tom Corde, one of Mitchell's players at Mason County. "You can't say you admire and respect everybody you play for."
To Rupp's Runt Larry Conley. He turns 70 on Wednesday. ... To James Lee. He turned 58 on Friday. ... To former Alabama player and coach Mark Gottfried. He turns 50 on Monday. ... To Richard Madison. He turned 49 on Thursday. ... To Dirk Minniefield. He turns 53 Sunday. ... To Oliver Simmons. He turns 38 on Monday.