What a buzzkill.
When San Diego State commemorates the moment it clinched its first trip to the Final Four, will it use a photo of the referees huddled around the scorer’s table? A stopwatch?
Yes, officials were right to call the foul on Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard. It was obvious in real time, and replays afterward confirmed, that Nembhard had his left hand clamped firmly at Darrion Trammell’s waist as Trammell put up a layup that clanged off the rim. That’s a foul in every game, at every level, whether it’s a Final Four or post-game ice cream on the line.
But to have this game, between these two teams, end like that sucked all the joy and drama out of it. And when officials took several minutes to review who knows what on Creighton’s last-gasp inbounds play, it robbed the Aztecs of the jubilant on-court celebration they deserved. Especially for their very first Final Four appearance.
“It was controlled madness,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said after his Aztecs squeaked out a 57-56 win over Creighton to win the South Regional in the NCAA men’s tournament.
Madness, yes. Controlled? Not so sure about that.
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Creighton coach Greg McDermott was heated during the game, red-faced as he yelled at official Lee Cassell. But he was diplomatic afterward, refusing to address the foul call and saying one play wasn’t responsible for Creighton’s loss.
“You win with class and you lose with class, and that’s what we’re going to do,” McDermott said. “We had some decent looks at the basket in the second half but were unable to knock them down. … It’s on us we didn’t quite get it done, not anyone else.”
No doubt his friendship with Dutcher was a large factor in his restraint.
McDermott and Dutcher have crossed paths often throughout the years despite their teams not being remotely close to each other geographically, and they have a bond that goes beyond the basic coaching fraternity. Their teams even shared a plane to the Maui Invitational last fall.
So no matter what McDermott really thought about the last 1.2 seconds of the game, or the several minutes it took to review them, he wasn’t going to say it.
“With all due respect, two teams played their tails off,” McDermott said. “Officiating is part of the game. We’re not going to go there. We lost the game because we didn’t do enough and San Diego State did.”
On that, he is correct. Creighton shot less than 28% in the second half and was an abysmal 0-for-10 from 3-point range. Despite that, Creighton managed to steal a bucket with 34 seconds left that seemed as if it would send the game into overtime — just like last year’s first-round game between the teams.
With 7-foot-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner parked in front of him, Adam Seiko overthrew the inbounds pass and Creighton’s Baylor Scheierman snagged it out of the air in front of the basket. Scheierman quickly laid it in, tying the game at 56.
On San Diego State’s final possession, it didn’t look as if the Aztecs were going to be able to get a shot off in time. Not a good one, anyway. But as Trammell drove to the hoop and lifted his arm to shoot, Nembhard put his hand on Trammell’s waist.
“They came off a little screen. He got downhill and tried to make a floater. I tried to make a rearview contest,” Nembhard said. “(Officials) called a foul, so yeah.”
For what it’s worth, Trammell said he didn’t think Nembhard’s hand affected his shot. Asked if he was surprised to hear the whistle, given all the calls officials haven’t made when the stakes aren’t nearly as high, Trammell said no.
“I think I was fouled but it was up for the refs to decide,” he said. “Even if they didn’t call it, we were going to lace them up and get ready for overtime.”
Even if it was the right call, most would have preferred that to the drawn-out, anticlimactic ending.
Referees spent several minutes reviewing the foul call and figuring out how many seconds to put on the clock. Then another several to determine there was no time left when the inbounds pass sailed out of bounds.
Meanwhile, San Diego State players milled about the floor looking confused and apprehensive, cautioning each other against celebrating. It’s the biggest moment of their young lives and they were unable to enjoy it in the moment.
Finally, the referees signaled the game was over.
“There was nothing for free tonight,” Dutcher said. “Everything was hard to get for both teams.”
Including the jubilant ending San Diego State deserved.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.