March Madness: Why officials were right in controversial call that decided San Diego State-Creighton game

It's not the ending fans wanted.

But officials got things right on Sunday with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Creighton's Ryan Nembhard fouled San Diego State's Darrion Trammell to set up a game-winning free throw. It should've been called and it was called.

With the final seconds of regulation ticking in a 56-56 game, Trammell drove to the lane for a look at a go-ahead bucket. He pulled up at the free-throw line and launched a floater that bounced off the front of the rim. A whistle blew on the court just before the final buzzer sounded. Nembhard was called for a foul on the shot. Trammell was awarded two free throws.

Officials reviewed the play to determine that 1.2 seconds remained. Then Trammell went to the line. He missed the first free throw. But he hit the second to secure the final 57-56 margin to earn San Diego State's first-ever trip to the Final Four. Creighton didn't score on its final possession.

The outcome decided on the free-throw line amounted to an anticlimax that drew immediate debate on social media, including charges of officials deciding the game.

But the foul was clear. Nembhard shoved Trammell in the hip with his left hand at the apex of Trammell's shot. It wasn't an egregious shove. It wasn't violent. But it was a clear personal foul that may or may not have affected Trammell's shot.

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Whether or not it did is inconsequential. The foul was clear, and officials were right to call it. Had the same foul occurred with seven minutes left in the first half, there would be no outrage. But just because the stakes of a given moment are higher is not justification for officials to swallow their whistles.

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - MARCH 26: Ryan Nembhard #2, Ryan Kalkbrenner #11, Baylor Scheierman #55, Arthur Kaluma #24 and Trey Alexander #23 of the Creighton Bluejays reacts to a foul call against the San Diego State Aztecs during the second half in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2023 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
This is not the ending Creighton or neutral observers wanted. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Reminiscent of Super Bowl finish

The play evokes a parallel to a controversial penalty late in February's Super Bowl. Philadelphia Eagles cornerback James Bradberry held Chiefs receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on Kansas City's game-winning drive. It wasn't an egregious penalty, nor one that was obvious on an initial look. But secondary angles showed that Bradberry did indeed hold Smith-Schuster. Even Bradberry agreed that the call was correct.


The penalty allowed the Chiefs to run out the clock before kicking a game-winning field goal with eight seconds remaining. It robbed fans of a climatic and potentially classic Super Bowl ending. But that doesn't make it a bad call.

Just like Sunday's Elite Eight game. Fans want to see buzzer-beaters in March, not game-winning free throws on close calls. Because why wouldn't they? But not calling the foul would be the true injustice. Neglecting to blow the whistle because of the stakes of the moment would be the real case of officials deciding the game.