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Special report: Mercy rule does little to stop lopsided victories in high school basketball

12:00 AM, Feb. 17, 2013 EST

The Reno Huskies girls varsity basketball team beat the McQueen Lancers girls varsity team by the lopsided score of 75-35 on Friday night, February 8, 2013 at Reno High School in Reno, Nevada. / Tom R. Smedes/Special to RGJ

Faced with a troubling number of 40- and even 50-point blowouts two years ago and the deluge of complaints and charges of running up the score that followed, the state's high school athletics governing body instituted a mercy rule.

If the margin in basketball reached 40 points at any point after halftime, the clock would not stop.

The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association implemented the rule before the 2011-12 season. It was designed to significantly decrease the number of lopsided games. A Reno Gazette-Journal analysis shows it failed.

Games decided by 40 points increased the past two seasons statewide, though games with a 50-point margin dramatically dropped.

The RGJ analyzed more than 7,800 games between NIAA-member schools from the past four seasons -- the two before the rule and the two after. During that time, nearly one of every 10 varsity games was decided by 40 points or more.

During the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons combined, 378 boys and girls games finished with at least a 40-point margin. There were 387 such games in the two seasons since the rule was introduced (and data does not include this season's playoffs, which conclude with the state tournament this week in Las Vegas).

In the two seasons before the rule, 12.9 percent of girls games were decided by 40 or more. That rate did not change for the two-season period since. Boys games were decided by at least 40 at a 6.4 percent clip in the two seasons before the rule and that rose to 7.2 percent in the two years since.

Eddie Bonine, the NIAA's executive director, looks beyond the hard numbers to evaluate the rule's success.

"I think it has made a difference," said Bonine, in his seventh year as head of the NIAA. "A lot of what I do is proactive but some of it is reactive, and implementing this rule two years ago was a reaction to some things that were going on in Southern Nevada at the time. We were getting a lot of complaints from down there about the margins of a lot of games, mostly girls, and accusations of teams running up the score.

"I haven't received a single complaint on this issue in basketball since the rule. So, from that standpoint, it's worked. Yeah, they're still getting beat by 40, but it could have been worse; they could have been beat by 50 or 60 if not for the running clock."

With a running clock, time stops only for timeouts, injuries and technical fouls. It continues to count down through jump balls, out-of-bounds plays and free throws. The only time a running clock cannot be used is in a state championship game.

"It's like shooting the dog so he doesn't suffer a prolonged death," Owyhee girls coach Andrea Astarloa said.

Owyhee, a perennial state title contender the past decade which won it all in 2007 and 2008, fell on hard times recently. In the classification for the state's smallest schools, Division IV, the Braves suffered 10 losses by 40 points the past two seasons.

"If you're going to lose, you're going to lose," Astarloa said. "It's just easier to get it over with. I like the rule."

Girls, girls, girls

The rule's nexus was a disparity in girls games.

Nearly 13 percent of all girls games in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons were decided by at least 40 points, including 93 of 1,904 games (5 percent) decided by 50 or more.

"It was pretty bad a few years ago," Bonine said.

Little has changed.

Girls teams account for 14 of the top 16 for most 40-point wins the past two seasons.

Centennial's 24 victories by that margin are the most in the state during that span. Pershing County, which won the past two 2A state championshipsand is the favorite to win the Division III title this year, is second with 21. Bishop Manogue, Reed and Reno each have seven.

In Division I North this year, 17 league games eclipsed the 40-point final margin.

"I can't believe we have that many uncompetitive teams," Reed coach Sara Ramirez said. "Girls basketball has fallen way down."

Among the girls, Division I (formerly 4A) saw the most 40-point margins the past two years with 119; the classification had 136 the two years before. Cross-classification games were second during the current two-year period with 46; there were 37 the two years before.

Division I-A (formerly 3A) easily was the most competitive the past four years, with just 20 games decided by 40 points or more.

With less playing time since the mercy rule's implementation, girls games decided by 50 or more points dropped from 93 to 40 (57 percent), which led to an overall decrease of 61 percent the past two seasons.

The prospect of having to write an apology letter -- and the threat of job termination in one case -- also played a role in the decrease, coaches said.

Message sent

The 40-point rule is referred to as the "Centennial rule" in many circles after the Centennial girls team racked up 31 wins by at least 40 points, including 20 that eclipsed the 50-point margin, during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.

The groundwork for the NIAA's mercy rule was laid near the end of that second season.

It was then the NIAA began to force coaches of any team that won by more than 50 to write a letter of apology to the losing school and address what measures were taken to keep the game from getting so far out of hand.

Reed's Ramirez wrote two such letters.

"The kids knew I was going to get penalized, but it's hard to tell your second- and third-string not to score," she said.

The NIAA did not require letters this season, when just 19 regular-season games eclipsed a final margin of 50 points.

"But for me, personally, I can't win another game by 50 or I'll lose my job," Centennial girls coach Karen Weitz said. "That's what I was told by my principal, who was told by someone higher up, two years ago. I just don't put myself in that situation."

Weitz admitted the rule changed the way her team plays. The Bulldogs are not alone.

"We scale it back on defense, let teams score when we get around that 40-point lead," Owyhee boys coach Tim Olson said. "We give up more points than we probably should."

Owyhee, which plays an up-tempo style and attempts a lot of 3-pointers, had 10 40-point wins before the rule and seven since. Both marks rank second among boys to Bishop Gorman.

"I don't like the rule," Olson said. "I don't want the kids looking at the scoreboard, counting down until the running clock starts. Earlier this year, it took 2 minutes off the clock to execute two free throws, with substitutions and everyone just taking their time. My kids coming off the bench don't get as many minutes because the clock is running the whole time."

Weitz's Centennial team often just passes the ball around the perimeter, running the clock, to keep the margin from crossing the line. "But that's a bigger slap in the face than what the final score would have been," she said.

Not going anywhere

In Division IV, there's little that can be done to limit the lopsided outcomes. School sizes are pretty stable and there is no lower classification.

"I would rather have a running clock than have the other guys stall, just passing the ball around," Div. IV Carlin boys coach Myron Branning said.

Carlin's 15 losses of at least 40 points are the most among boys teams statewide the past four seasons. That includes 10 in the past two seasons.

"This way, everyone can continue to try and it still doesn't get too bad," Branning said.

Realignment this past summer in what is now Division I, however, was partly aimed at such inequities in the Las Vegas area in all sports.

Through one season, Division I boys and girls games decided by 40 points dropped from 88 last year to 42 this year. The Division I-A South, where 10 schools were dropped to, experienced an increase of 14 such games, including 12 more on the boys' side.

But the net decrease between Divisions I and I-A was 32 games.

"It's too bad that we have to do it," Bonine said of implementing the rule. "But teams have adapted to it. Like anything else, we'll review it and look at it after the season. But I think it's making the difference it was intended to make."

The North should see a drop next year when the pod system that placed schools from Divisions I-A and III in the same leagues for the regular season is no longer used. Cross-classification games represented 27 percent of the North's 40-point margins the past four years.




Boys Basketball

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