Why Gonzaga won't blame the officiating for its national title loss to North Carolina

The Dagger

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Thirty minutes after Gonzaga’s 71-65 loss in Monday night’s national title game, the photo had already started circulating through a crestfallen Zags locker room.

They had all seen that North Carolina center Kennedy Meeks’ right hand was out of bounds when he forced a pivotal held ball with Silas Melson with 49 seconds to go in a one-point game.

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It would have been easy for Gonzaga to bemoan the blown call on a night when the officiating often overshadowed the basketball, but none of the Zags took that bait. To a man, they insisted missed calls are part of the game and credited North Carolina for taking advantage by scoring on its next two possessions to put the game away.

“That’s one call. We played a whole 40 minutes of basketball,” Melson said. “I’m not going to start complaining about the referees. North Carolina beat us. They played a great game.”

Gonzaga players were far more charitable to the referees than most viewers were after a choppy, disjointed title game that devolved into a glorified free-throw shooting contest in the second half. The Zags and Tar Heels committed a combined 44 fouls and shot 52 free throws, seldom going consecutive possessions without a whistle.

Neither side unduly benefited from the whistlefest as referees Verne Harris, Michael Stephens and Mike Eade assessed 22 fouls apiece and made dubious calls in both teams’ favor. The only real losers were the viewers robbed of the chance to see college basketball’s two premier teams face off at full strength.

All the whistles became impossible to ignore midway through the second half when foul trouble sent both teams’ best big men to the bench. By the time there were eight minutes to go in the game, Meeks had four fouls, as did the Gonzaga frontcourt trio of Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams.

The barrage of whistles forced Gonzaga to abandon its plan to play 7-foot centers Karnowski and Collins together for long stretches like they did so effectively two nights earlier. The Zags believed that duo gave them the best chance to neutralize a deep, talented North Carolina frontcourt that has gobbled up offensive rebounds at a national-best rate.

“We were going to play Collins and Karnowski together to match up size-wise and help us on the glass,” Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd said. “We were going to play [Williams] a lot too, but we’ve never had them all in foul trouble.”

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Several of the fouls assessed to Collins were especially ticky-tacky, none more so than when he got his fourth jostling for post position away from the ball with more than 15 minutes to go. Collins reentered the game with eight minutes left, but the McDonald’s All-American lasted less than three minutes before being whistled for his fifth and final foul.

“It was really frustrating because I’ve been struggling with foul trouble all year,” Collins said. “You’d think I’d learn, but I guess I didn’t learn. If I’m in the game, maybe I can make a difference in those last six minutes, but I’ve just got to be smarter.”

All the fouls were in part due to the aggressiveness of both teams. Among the strengths of both the Zags and Tar Heels are force-feeding the ball into the post, attacking the rim off the dribble and playing tough, physical interior defense.

“Those were three of the best officials in the entire country – NBA, college or anything,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

“I had no issue whatsoever. I thought they did a fabulous job. And I’m on the losing end. And it’s just not an easy game to ref. We’re throwing the ball inside. They’re throwing the ball inside. Our guards go downhill. Their guards go downhill. So, I thought they were great.”

Perhaps part of the reason Gonzaga swallowed any complaints was because it benefited from a key missed call only a couple weeks ago.

In the Zags’ round-of-32 matchup with Northwestern, referees missed a blatant goaltending call on Collins that would have trimmed the surging Wildcats’ deficit to three with five minutes to go. Northwestern coach Chris Collins subsequently picked up a technical foul arguing the call, enabling Gonzaga to extend its lead and close the game out.

Whereas a furious Collins could barely contain his frustration in his postgame news conference, Gonzaga players and coaches were far more forgiving about Meeks being out of bounds. They admitted they still had a chance to win but didn’t make the plays they needed to the next couple possessions.

“The ref missed a call, but that’s human nature,” Lloyd sad. “It’s the breaks of the game.”

More NCAA tournament coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Everyone thought the title game refs were bad … even LeBron
Way-too-early Top 25 for the 2017-18 college basketball season
Joel Berry II wins NCAA tourney’s Most Outstanding Player award
UNC couldn’t fill its student section, so ASU students stepped in

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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