Midwest Region: Poor late-game officiating stains great finish in Indianapolis

Photo: Andy Lyons | Getty Images

It wouldn’t be the NCAA Tournament without a game coming down to a questionable block/charge call.

Tennessee was inbounding from the baseline with 10.8 seconds left, trailing 72-71. The Volunteers, who had erased a 15-point deficit in the final 10:32 of the second half, had just forced a turnover to earn a chance to complete their comeback. Their backcourt pressure forced Michigan sophomore Caris LeVert to step on the out of bounds line.

Photo: Andy Lyons | Getty Images
Photo: Andy Lyons | Getty Images

The inbounds pass came to Tennessee senior Jarnell Stokes, who lowered his shoulder slightly as he drove on Michigan senior Jordan Morgan. Morgan flopped to the deck, and the whistle blew.

Offensive foul. Michigan ball.

“Well, they set a screen for him to come open, so I knew that the play was going to be for him,” Morgan said. “And I just know he likes to play bully ball.”

The Volunteers fouled Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas with 2.1 seconds left. After making the first free throw, Stauskas missed the second. Tennessee’s final, desperation heave wasn’t even close, ending the 11th-seeded Volunteers’ Cinderella run.

Now that charge call will be the one Tennessee fans go back to for years to come, saying “what if.” Of course, Michigan appeared in position to steal the ball if there was no call. But what if they whistled Morgan for a blocking foul instead and Stokes got to shoot free throws? What if a no call and subsequent Michigan led to a Wolverine being fouled with more time on the clock, giving the Volunteers a better chance to force overtime or win at the buzzer?

Unsurprisingly, Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin said from his view, Stokes’ move did not look like an offensive foul.

“I thought he made a good move,” Martin said. “The official called a charge. … To give you an exact answer I have to go back and watch film. But both guys were moving. But with the new rule, I’m not sure.”

The worst part about this call in this situation is that it will forever take away from a great ending in a great Sweet 16 game.

It’s why, immediately after the game, fans and college basketball analysts tweeted about poor officiating instead of how Morgan outplayed the Volunteers’ supposedly more talented and more physical frontcourt after most people gave the Volunteers’ big men the upper hand leading up to the game.

It’s why I led this post with the foul call instead of Tennessee senior Jordan McRae willing his team to the brink of a victory, only to come up one basket shy and watch his collegiate career end.

And it’s not even the only blown call of the night in a late-game situation. In the second game in Indianapolis, Kentucky forward Julius Randle went straight up defending a Wayne Blackshear layup. Blackshear initiated contact with his body, and the refs whistled Randle for a foul. At that point, there were 14.2 seconds left. Blackshear made only one of the free throws, so Kentucky held on to the lead and ultimately won by five.

Poor calls are part of the sport, but it’s disappointing to watch college players’ careers hinge on these sorts of calls. But ultimately the game was not decided solely by that call. Tennessee could have made plenty of other plays on both ends of the floor to win that game.

What’s worse is now a game like Friday’s will be the known as the “Jordan Morgan Flop Game” because of the final 10.8 seconds instead of the high-quality, emotional thriller it was for 40 minutes.

That’s disappointing.

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