ATLANTA – No one knows if Wichita State actually would've driven down the court and hit a dramatic game-tying three in the final second of its national semifinal game against Louisville.
And that's the problem.
Instead, we know that referee Karl Hess believes that even the briefest of battles for a loose ball, even in the most precious moments of the sport, constitutes a held ball and thus a quick whistle and thus having the end of the game determined by that unlikable possession arrow.
Here was the situation: Louisville up 71-68 with 8.8 second left. Luke Hancock misses a free throw.
Instead, Hess blew a painfully quick whistle claiming it was a held ball. The possession arrow – no jump balls in college – went to Louisville.
And that was the ball game. Louisville hit one more free throw and won 72-68 to advance to Monday's national championship game.
"In the official's judgment, a held ball occurred because two players held the ball and control could not be obtained without undue roughness," the NCAA said in a statement.
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Wichita State fans were enraged. Everyone else at the Georgia Dome just sort of sagged out in disappointment, the chance at March Madness stolen by a ref.
"I thought the ball was loose before the whistle was blown," Baker said. "I tapped it to Malcolm [Armstead]. They already called jump ball, so ..."
The game was poorly officiated on all sides, in all ways, across the game. This was just the killer that ended it.
Look, officiating a game is difficult and thankless. Still, it is one thing to call or not call a foul on someone taking a game-winning shot. It's entirely another to go quickly to the possession arrow on a play that only marginally applied as a held ball.
And if there is ever a time to "let them play," it's during a brief battle for a loose ball 80-something feet from the basket in the waning seconds of the Final Four.
Moreover, Wichita State had lost the possession arrow earlier after a bad double foul was called – one that required the refs to go to the monitor to even figure out what happened. Wichita had possession of the ball at that point and a better call – no foul – would have preserved that advantage.
All in all, it was one bizarre way to end a game.
It isn't fair to say the refs decided the game. Louisville won fair and square, and there is no telling if the Shockers would've been able to even tie it with some thrilling shot. But in an event that captures the country's imagination each year with just those kind of late-game situations, to have the official snuff out a possible shining moment was dispiriting.
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No one came to watch the refs have a final chance determined by that clunky possession arrow that almost no one likes in the first place – its refs' inability to properly throw jump balls that led to the creation of that rule in the first place.
Maybe Wichita State hits an outrageous 3-pointer to force five more minutes. Maybe it clanks off the rim and Louisville exhales and moves on anyway.
No one knows. Too bad.
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