In the second round of the Big East Tournament on Wednesday, the St. John’s Red Storm defeated the Rutgers Scarlet Knights 65-63 in front of an exuberant crowd for the two o’clock game at Madison Square Garden. Instead of talking about the tightly contested match that resulted in a win for the hometown Johnies, most people today are discussing the poor officiating that occurred in the final seconds. Multiple mistakes were made on one play that cost Rutgers a chance to win the game. Furthermore, the unsettled conclusion was a disservice to the two teams who had battled to earn the right to advance in the tournament.
The controversial play began with Rutgers inbounding the ball from full court trailing 65-63 with 4.9 seconds remaining. After a long pass was deflected away from Rutgers forward Gilvydas Biruta, St. John’s forward Justin Brownlee got a hand on the ball and began to chase after it. Here is where the problem occurred. Brownlee picked up the ball, appeared to travel, then stepped out of bounds and threw the ball into the stands. As he did all this, the silence of the whistles of referees Jim Burr, Tim Higgins, and Earl Walton allowed the clock to tick down to zero, giving St. John’s the victory.
The referees missed several opportunities to penalize Brownlee for his unintelligent actions. First, Brownlee should have been called for a walk as he picked up his dribble and moved with the ball. Next, he certainly stepped out of bounds with time left on the clock. Had the referee on the sideline, Tim Higgins, seen Brownlee had step out of bounds (I don’t know how he did not), the play could have been reviewed and Rutgers would have been awarded the ball with about 1.7 seconds left on the clock. Finally, Brownlee should have been given a technical foul for throwing the ball into the stands before the game was over. A player simply cannot heave the ball into the stands. Rather than just receiving possession of the ball, the technical foul would have given Rutgers two free throws, while retaining possession after the shots.
While we will never know whether Rutgers would have won, it does not excuse the mistakes made by the referees at the end of the game. The most upsetting part to me is that the Rutgers players and coaches were unjustly robbed after playing hard for the full forty minutes. The Rutgers players should have been given the opportunity to capitalize on the mental lapse by Brownlee. Most importantly, Rutgers lost the chance to advance in the Big East Tournament. Taking that first game could have propelled Rutgers to a Big East Tournament Title, which is the only way they could have earned a ticket to the NCAA tournament.
While I normally will say the referees have a tough job, I cannot defend them in this case. The referees did not just hold the whistle on a possible foul call, but rather missed multiple obvious calls in the most critical seconds of the game. While the head of NCAA officiating, John Adams, admitted the officiating was unacceptable, Jim Burr, Tim Higgins, and Earl Walton should be suspended for the remainder of the Big East Tournament. Since Rutgers has been punished with their elimination from play, the referees should be punished as well. A message needs to be sent that the lack of officiating was in fact unacceptable and should not happen again. The fans, players, and coaches of both teams were left with an uncomfortable feeling leaving Madison Square Garden Wednesday because the referees failed to take action. By sending a message, hopefully no more games will be misguided in this year’s tournament.