The North Carolina Tar Heels won college basketball’s national title on Monday against Gonzaga, 71-65. We should start with the premise that North Carolina played a strong game, had an incredible season, and is a deserving champion. That’s important. This was a fun title game, with lots of drama until the last 15 seconds or so.
Unfortunately, refereeing was very much part of this game’s story. The game was officiated liberally, with the refs doling out an incredible 44 fouls — 22 on each team — in 40 minutes of competition. Not every one of those calls was bad. What was worrying about them was that so many came on apparently routine plays that, at other points, didn’t draw whistles. There wasn’t great consistency.
But if there’s a smoking gun to prove the referees did wrong, it’s not about fouls. It’s about one scramble in the game’s final minute, which included a clear missed call that led to arguably the biggest basket of the game. It started like this:
In the game’s final minute, North Carolina center Kennedy Meeks went to the floor with Gonzaga guard Silas Melson. The two jostled for a split-second, each trying to secure the ball in what was, at that moment, a one-point game.
Meeks was determined and, through a tie-up, came away with the ball. That set up a chance teammate Isaiah Hicks, who finished from around the basket to give the Heels a 68-65 lead with 26 seconds left on the clock. It was an enormous play. Three’s a bigger lead than one.
The official standing on the baseline missed something, though.
Both Meeks and Melson were touching the ball, and Meeks extend his right hand to break a fall to the ground. In doing so, Meeks rested his hands on the out-of-bounds line. Because he was touching the ball, the play should’ve been dead. Possession should’ve been awarded to Gonzaga, down a point with 26 ticks to go.
It didn’t work out that way. Hicks’ bucket compelled Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss to try a desperate, quick jumper on the other end of the court. Meeks blocked that shot. It started a sequence that ended with a Justin Jackson breakaway dunk for North Carolina star Justin Jackson. Five-point game, 12 seconds left.
Game, set, and match.
Officials have a brutally difficult job. The referee who missed Meeks going out of bounds had a lot to watch in real time. It’s not right to say the referee cost Gonzaga the game, because there’s no guarantee any outcome would’ve come afterward. It’s also not right to claim a conspiracy. Gonzaga had benefited from its own missed out-of-bounds call that set up a basket minutes earlier. We can’t revise history.
But it’s clear that Gonzaga lost its best chance at a comeback because of a missed call. In the biggest game of the year, that’s a real bummer.