Goaltending or no-call, that is the question.
The Syracuse Orange men's basketball team survived a scare at the hands of West Virginia Saturday afternoon, a game decided only when the final horn had sounded and time had expired.
With the shot clock turned off and 26.3 seconds to play in a Syracuse-led 63-61 ballgame, West Virginia's Truck Bryant attempted an early three-point shot, only to have the try miss the backboard, rim and net entirely. After Mountaineers forward Deniz Kilicli recovered the air ball, Kilicli put up a quick two-point try with 11 seconds remaining.
Syracuse's Moussa Keita went for the block, contacting the basketball on its upward trajectory around the time when the ball first hit the backboard.
Whether or not the ball hit the backboard—and where exactly it hit the backboard—before Keita's block attempt is all the difference between goaltending and a no-call.
Officials on the floor no-called the sequence, ultimately resulting in the ball bouncing out-of-bounds and being awarded to West Virginia with 6.2 seconds remaining in regulation for one last attempt at tying or winning the ballgame.
The Mountaineers were unable to produce in that final 6.2 seconds of play and the Orange escaped with a two-point victory, 63-61.
NCAA Basketball Rule 4, Section 34 is entitled "Goaltending," and defines goaltending as it relates to this play:
When the entire ball is above the level of the ring during a field-goal try and contacts the backboard, it is considered to be on its downward flight. In such a case, it is goaltending when the ball is touched by a player.In other words, a ball on its physically upward trajectory is considered on its downward flight if it contacts the backboard while the entire ball is above the level of the ring—not most of the ball, not even with the ring—the entire ball, entirely above the ring.
Further complicating matters, this provision pertains to the ball contacting the backboard, not the defensive player contacting the ball. The ball may strike the backboard even with (but not above) the ring and continue upward so that the defensive player contacts the ball while it is entirely above the ring. This scenario would be a legal play and a no-call would be correct.
Nonetheless, replays indicate the ball first contacted the backboard entirely above the ring and was then contacted by the defensive player.
Of the three officials, only one was in the best position to see this sequence, and even that angle was not optimal.
The endline official (lead) cannot see through the backboard and the table-side (trail) and center officials are too high due to their duties in regards to judging player activity on the floor to see whether the ball has changed direction—thereby indicating it hit the backboard—before being contacted by the defensive player.
Perhaps demoralized, perhaps too excited for their own good, West Virginia ran a broken play and was unable to put up their desired final shot attempt, missing a potential buzzer-beating three-ball and losing to Syracuse.
In the end, what doomed West Virginia wasn't one missed call near the end of regulation—one call that may or may not have sent the game to overtime. Syracuse would have had about 10 seconds to win had the officials called goaltending.
It was their field goal percentage of 40.7 percent, compared to Syracuse's mark of 46.0 percent.
It was their 12 missed three-point attempts and a game-ending stretch in which the Mountaineers missed four consecutive tries, unable to put points on the board since Kevin Jones' three-point jumper with 1:45 left on the clock.
It was Kilicli's 1-5 performance at the free throw line and West Virginia's 14 turnovers to Syracuse's six.
After the game, West Virginia point guard Gary Browne might have said it best: "We beat ourselves."
Still, when in doubt and for those without the proper perspective, popularly vacuous convention is to blame another person's single mistake for one's collective shortcomings.
The call was missed—officials occasionally make mistakes, though far less often than players miss shots and commit turnovers. Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins decently questioned the call, even though the officials most certainly would not have changed it and the game continued.
Huggins and officials Karl Hess, Brian O'Connell and Gene Steratore—yes, that same Gene Steratore of the NFL—acted as professionally as possible in the wake of that penultimate game-ending situation.
Before the jokes begin, yes, there is such a thing as goaltending in football.
ESPN play-by-play commentator Beth Mowins reflected the officials' and coaches' sense of professionalism, stating matter-of-factly what happened during play and deferring to her analyst when he proceeded to lose his mind.
That analyst, ESPN's Tim Welsh, shamefully shed any and all sense of decorum, spewing gems such as, "Call missed ... inexcusable" and "you just can't miss that call."
Welsh notably did not comment on the play until he saw the slow motion replay from the most advantageous angle, a good 15 seconds after the ball was awarded to West Virginia out of bounds following the goaltending no-call.
It would have been one thing if Welsh declared the call missed in real-time, before replays were shown.
It is quite another matter for a professional sports commentator to revile an official's real-time call after the fact, using evidence gained only after consulting replay.
For non-reviewable plays like goaltending, referees, umpires, judges and linesmen don't have the luxury of hovering over a monitor, asking a replay technician to zoom, reverse, slow or change camera angles.
Officials get one shot at getting the call right—one shot, in real-time, from one angle.
Perhaps Welsh should take a page from ESPN colleague Pat Forde, who wrote, "Quit screaming about the officiating," and quoted SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, who "said something profoundly true: 'It's amazing how much better the officiating is when you don't care who wins.'"
After all, hindsight is 20-20.