SALT LAKE CITY – In a sport in which gigantic athletes are not allowed to touch yet are constantly crashing into each other, a certain amount of controversy is expected. The most hated player at Duke doesn’t draw so many boos as an exceptional college basketball official.
Most calls are iffy, many plays that could be called are allowed to slide. But in Gonzaga’s 79-73 win over Northwestern on Saturday there was the rarest of all NCAA Tournament sightings: official acknowledgment that a call was blown.
And boy, was it a big one.
With 4:57 left in the game, the eighth-seeded Wildcats were in the midst of a torrid comeback. The Bulldogs had seen a 22-point lead whittled down to merely five when NU center Dererk Pardon lofted a shot toward the basket.
Gonzaga’s Zach Collins stuck his hand through the basket to block the shot, an obvious no-no that should have been ruled basket interference, causing the basket to be counted and pulling NU within three points.
The call was so obvious, in fact, the NCAA issued a statement immediately after the game acknowledging that the officials were in error.
But that apology was far too late to stop NU coach Chris Collins, who had a front-row seat to the play that happened just a few feat away from his team’s bench. Collins raced after the officials arguing the lack of a call – he’d already received a few warnings for his protestations – and was issued a technical foul.
“If I see a guy from another team put his hand through the rim and block a shot going through the basket, I’m going to react to it if the play isn’t called,” Collins said. “I’m a human being, too. I think all of you would. A guy puts his hand right through the rim and blocks the shot. To me that’s a goaltend. Of course, that cuts it to three. We’re all emotional. We’re coming back from 20 down.”
Gonzaga was allowed to choose its free-throw shooter and Nigel Williams-Goss hit a pair to extend the lead to 65-58. Instead of being within three points for the first time since the 15:29 mark of the first half, the Wildcats trailed by three possessions.
Collins sarcastically accepted the NCAA’s apology, saying, “That makes me feel great,” but holds no animosity toward the officials.
“It’s a very easy call, in my opinion. But it’s an honest mistake,” Collins said. “Referees are human beings, they’re here for a reason, because they’re outstanding officials. They made the calls. We have to live with them.”