It's nearly impossible for a No. 16 to defeat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It's even harder when Goliath has help from the officials.
The referees weren't the only reason UNC Asheville failed to pull of a stunning upset of top-seeded Syracuse on Thursday. The Orange's distinct size advantage led to a rebounding edge that was too much to overcome in a 72-65 loss. But the three men in stripes didn't do the No. 16 seed any favors.
Aside from the usual ticky-tack fouls that always seem to go against underdogs, UNC Asheville was the subject of two egregious calls ensured its bid at history would fall short.
The first was a missed goaltending call early in the second half that prevented the Bulldogs from an and-one opportunity. A Jeremy Atkinson shot clearly hit the glass before it was swiped away by a Syracuse defender. Refs whistled the Orange for a foul, but missed the goaltending. Atkinson hit one free throw. A three-point opportunity turned into one.
Later, with 34 seconds left and Syracuse up by three points, Orange guard Brandon Triche fumbled an inbounds pass that went out of bounds near the UNC Asheville bench. Inexplicably, the official watching the play from 10 feet away ruled that the ball went off a UNCA player. As the photo above shows, the hands of Jaron Lane weren't close to the ball.
A lane violation that occurred a few minutes earlier and was criticized by CBS announcers was not one of the bad calls. In college, a player standing outside the three-point arc must wait until the ball hits the rim before crossing the threshold. Refs were correct to award Scoop Jardine another free throw on that play.
John Adams, NCAA director of men's basketball officiating, acknowledged the mistake.
"I'm not going to alibi for the gentlemen in the game," he said. "When you see this call, it's either a foul or you give it to the other team that didn't knock the ball out of bounds. He didn't get it right."
UNC Asheville had opportunities beyond the goaltending and out of bounds call but couldn't convert. Syracuse escaped being on the wrong end of history. It wasn't because of the refs, but with a little help.
After the game, UNC Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach told reporters he thought his squad was the better team on Thursday. Jim Boeheim was told of those comments and asked to respond. "That's what they make scoreboards for," he said.
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