A close and competitive Texas-NC State game ends with a charging call, and that’s OK

Ariel Atkins, center, and the rest of the Longhorns exult after their win over NC State Sunday. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.
Ariel Atkins, center, and the rest of the Longhorns exult after their win over NC State Sunday. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.

Texas and North Carolina State played one of the most exciting games of the second round of the NCAA tournament last Sunday. The game featured just four lead changes and two ties, but each team had dominant runs during the first three quarters. The fourth was a close, back-and-forth affair that featured a last-minute charging foul that cancelled a go-ahead bucket by NC State, and allowed Texas to win the game at the free throw line.

The game showcased the Wolfpack’s senior guards, Miah Spencer and Dominique Wilson, who scored 58 of their 80 points. It also highlighted the future of Texas basketball with crucial play by two freshmen: forward Joyner Holmes and guard Alicia Sutton.

Spencer’s play was relentless, and she broke down the Longhorn defense repeatedly to tally 31 points for the game. Holmes, a highly-gifted player who has come on strong at the end of the season, dominated the last few minutes of the game and saved the win with her tenacious rebounding, scoring, and defense.

So did ESPN studio analyst Rebecca Lobo focus on Spencer’s outstanding night and the sadness of the loss? The promise shown by the play of the young Texas team? Neither one.

Instead, Lobo chose to second-guess the officials about that charge call with eight seconds left that erased Wilson’s go-ahead bucket. ESPN’s Brooke Weisbrod, the color commentator actually present at the game and sitting 45 feet from the call, immediately said, “That’s a good call.” Ten minutes later and  1,700 miles away and from Austin in Bristol, Connecticut, Lobo knew better.

“That’s a no-call,” she declared.

She gave no reason why she thought it should be a no-call, which of all the possible foul options made the least sense. Wilson was driving to the basket, the 6-3 Holmes stepped in the way, and the 5-8 Wilson completely flattened her. How can that possibly not be a foul on someone?

Of course, what Lobo meant was, “Officials should not make calls in the last eight seconds of a game.” This widely-held belief is completely ridiculous. A no-call is still a call. One of the teams is affected. Not calling this charge probably would have taken the game from Texas. Calling it allowed them to seize the win. The officials did their job, which is to enforce the rules of basketball. Why should officials change what they call based on the clock? How does that make sense?

It doesn’t make sense. But Lobo engaged in an unfortunate style of commentary that we hear all too often from her, and from Carolyn Peck, and from Doris Burke: sophomoric second-guessing of officials, or coaches, or even the decisions on the court of players who are, after all, 21 year old (or younger) kids.

This use of the power of the microphone to imply “I know better than … whoever” is unworthy of these announcers, who collectively and individually are basketball experts. Worse, in this instance, it robbed Spencer of national recognition of her brilliance in her last college game. It robbed Texas of national recognition that, after failing to finish four close games in the last two weeks of the season, they rose to the occasion in the NCAA tournament and did close out this very tight game. It robbed Holmes of the breakout game that may well define her next three years with the Longhorns, which are likely to end with All-American honors. And, it robbed the viewers of the insights into the actual play that Lobo does so well when she focuses us on the game.

And for what? Some small ego boost for knowing better? Lobo doesn’t need that: she was an All-American and NCAA National Champion. Carolyn Peck (who was not part of this broadcast) doesn’t need to engage in similar second-guessing: she is one of just six coaches since 1995 not named Geno Auriemma to win a National Championship. The block-charge is one of the toughest calls in basketball, and inevitably, someone is unhappy with them. Please, do not engage in the blame-the-officials game as if you were the ugly parent in the stands of a high school game.

Undoubtedly, these officials called a lot of fouls. They called nine offensive fouls in the game, seven of them against Texas. They called 52 fouls in all. Four NC State players (and one Texas player) fouled out. Almost nobody enjoys a game with 52 fouls called. Those fouls, however, owed as much to the failure of the players  to adjust to the officiating as it did to the officials making frequent, but consistent calls. Each of the fouls were fouls. This crew called them, 27 on NC State (19 Texas points) and 25 on Texas (26 NC State points). Get over it, and tell us what the teams did to secure (or miss) a victory.

Ariel Atkins charges into Jennifer Mathurin. ESPN photo.
Ariel Atkins charges into Jennifer Mathurin. ESPN photo.

The photo on the left shows Texas guard Ariel Atkins running into NC State’s Jennifer Mathurin at 6:03 in the first quarter. It was called a charge. The photo on the right shows NC State’s Wilson running into Texas’ Holmes at 0:08 in the fourth period. This was the charge call Lobo wanted the officials to ignore. Although one was at the top of the key, and one was in the paint, the position of the defender was nearly identical (actually, Holmes much more clearly had both feet planted), and the call by the officials was completely consistent. And not based upon the clock. As it should be.

So please, ESPN, tell your announcers to cut it out. Sure, if a call is truly horrible, make a note of it. But on close calls, the announcer is usually 45 feet (or 1700 miles) away, with a single angle, and frankly, they have no clue whether the officials are right. So. Just. Be. Quiet.

NC State's Dominique Wilson runs into Texas' Joyner Holmes with eight seconds left, which resulted in a controversial charging call. ESPN photo.
NC State’s Dominique Wilson runs into Texas’ Joyner Holmes with eight seconds left, which resulted in a controversial charging call. ESPN photo.

Former Georgia coach (and ESPN employee) Andy Landers said it best, referring to Lobo’s kvetching about the late-game charge. “She is the biggest whiner I’ve ever seen.”

Back to the game:

Texas jumped out to a dominating 28-15 lead at the end of the first quarter. NC State went scoreless for three minutes as Texas opened up a lead. The Wolfpack roared back on both sides of the ball in the second period behind Spencer. The Longhorns went cold in the second, scoring just nine points, including a four minute scoring drought of their own.  The score at the half was Texas 37, NC State 36.

In the third period the Wolfpack erased the deficit and led by eight points during much of the period. The weight continued to be on Spencer and Wilson, who scored 20 of their team’s 24 points in the third. The other four came on jumpers by Chelsea Nelson. Texas spread the scoring around as it had during the first half, led by Brooke McCarty and Lashann Higgs.

Holmes has been spectacular at times, and disappointing at many others this season.

“She came into the program gifted with some unique physical tools,” coach Karen Aston told me before the Tournament.

“But because she is so very gifted, she never has developed that natural habit to play every play. And until she gets that, she isn’t going tap into that ultimate potential.”

The final bucket of the third period was a rare Holmes three-pointer – just her third this season. But that shot may have been the signal that she was ready to play every remaining possession in the game. Her aggressiveness in the final stanza, on the glass, and in taking that key charge, saved Texas to play another day. In the fourth period the freshman had five rebounds, including an offensive board and put-back off a missed Higgs free throw with seven seconds remaining, that truly sealed the Longhorn victory.

The fourth period was tense until the final horn sounded, with no lead greater than five, and two ties, two lead changes, and nine possessions with a single point difference. In the crunch, Texas held firm and scored when they absolutely had to do so. Neither team played very good defense, but the Longhorns out-rebounded the Wolfpack 18-11 in the second half, and they took eight more shots. They spread the offense around, getting 29 bench points to NC State’s five, and by the end their team play, rebounding, and a bit of luck brought them the win.

Texas will face a surging Stanford team 9 p.m. Friday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, and the game will air on ESPN.