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Margins of calamity

This past weekend in sports was one of the worst for me in a long time. The Virginia basketball team lost in a heartbreaker to Duke, and the New England Patriots — my least favorite team in football — won its fourth Super Bowl in 13 years.

As much as I was angered by the outcomes of these two games, the manner in which those outcomes came about made it that much worse. If you’re a Patriots or a Blue Devils fan, the games probably reminded you why you love sports so much, but for me they were merely a reminder of why loving sports can sometimes be an exercise in masochism.

Both games were toss ups, and anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding himself. I’m not going to say that the Cavaliers or the Seahawks “deserved” to win, but I wouldn’t go as far to say Duke or New England deserved to win either. What happened at the end of those two games comes down much more to luck than anyone would ever admit.

When two exceptional teams meet, the margin for error plummets toward zero. If a player doesn’t put up that perfect shot or perfect throw when it matters most, that will cost you the game. Players can’t be perfect all the time, so these all-important moments become nothing more than probabilities. And when the probabilities don’t come through for the team you love — or do for the team you hate — all you can think is what could have been.

For Virginia, this came by way of a sequence of lights out three-point shooting by the Blue Devils. With an eight-point Virginia lead with just under five minute remaining, Duke entered the final stretch having previously only shot 1-11 from beyond the arc. They made five of six to close out the game.

Duke is averaging 37.6 percent from three, so 1-11 is definitely not to be expected. But while I’m a firm believer in regression to the mean, it is incredibly unlikely Duke would convert five shots in a six shot sample. Even senior guard Quinn Cook, who was three for three in that six-shot stretch, averages just 40 percent from that range. Putting those numbers up against the No. 1 scoring defense in one of the most hostile environments in college basketball is highly improbable, if not nearly impossible.

And where Duke got lucky with shots falling, Virginia was unlucky. In that final stretch, junior forwards Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill — two of the top three on the team in field goal percentage — went 0-4 from the field, and sophomore point-guard London Perrantes committed a rare turnover. If just two of those final 11 possessions swung in our favor, I think we would have won the game.

For the Patriots, the improbable slip happened on a Russell Wilson interception that ended up being Seattle’s last play. Of the 109 NFL passes thrown from the one-yard line this season, Wilson’s slant throw with 20 seconds remaining in the league’s biggest game was the first to be intercepted.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about the play call in the situation, but I don’t mind it. With one timeout left and less than a minute on the clock, Seattle probably couldn’t have run the ball three times in a row, so throwing on second down keeps the defense off its heels.

What kills me is that one short throw on the one-yard line completely changes the legacies of all those players. Had Wilson thrown the ball slightly behind where he did, had Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette muscled forward a little more or even just knocked the ball down, or had New England corner Malcolm Butler been half a step too late, the Seahawks would have won a championship.

Sure, the Seahawks and the Cavaliers had capitalized on plenty of their opponents’ mistakes up until that point and gotten some lucky breaks of their own. But so did the Patriots and the Blue Devils. The point is, the outcomes of those games were decided by which team was unlucky enough to make just one or two extra missteps. That margin is so small and impossible to control that I call it luck.

And what’s the result of those one or two unlucky missteps?

Virginia goes from likely getting a dozen or so first place votes in the AP Poll to falling below new No. 2 Gonzaga — a team whose only top-25 win came over No. 23 SMU in November. The Cavaliers had a chance to run away with the ACC regular title, but within an instant were left with almost no breathing room atop the standings.

For the Seahawks, the result is much worse. Had Wilson thrown a touchdown there instead of an interception, we would be using the word “dynasty” to talk about Seattle and Wilson would have been crowned an “elite” quarterback. Instead, Tom Brady is now being compared to Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, and Bill Belichick is being called by some the best coach of all time. It’s amazing how much history can be changed on the heels of one play, and how Brady’s legacy was sealed on possession where he wasn’t even on the field.

I find solace in the fact that there’s still time for these teams to do incredible things. For Virginia, the team can rally around the loss and use it as motivation to get even better. They showed what they were capable of by blowing out No. 12 North Carolina on the road Monday night. For the Seahawks, I wouldn’t be surprised if they return to the Super Bowl in the next two seasons.

I just really wish I didn’t have to listen to the incessant celebrating and jeering of Duke and New England fans for weeks to come.

Matt Comey is a weekly Sports columnist for the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @matthewcomey.