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North Carolina Cut Down the Nets, but the Referees Won the National Championship

The 27 second-half fouls marred what was supposed to be a matchup of the two best teams in college basketball

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

UNC won the national championship game 71–65 over Gonzaga on Monday, but the result is a side plot. What we witnessed was one of the greatest performances in refereeing history. While the Bulldogs and Tar Heels fought over some stupid trophy, the Zebras whistled a whopping 27 fouls in the second half, including a breathtaking double foul that sent both teams to the free throw line for what easily could have been ruled inadvertent contact. We never got to watch Kobe play in college, but I imagine this is what it would’ve felt like to watch him ref in college. I wanted the refs to burst into my home and start calling me for fouls, frightening my dog with high-pitched whistles and then forcing her to shoot free throws with her front paws.

Bad refereeing by itself is not particularly interesting. It happens in every sport, at every level. Sports move fast, they have complicated rules, and referees are human. There were plenty of mistakes on Monday night, as the officials made bad calls that hurt both teams.

Except the national championship featured a special type of bad refereeing that changed the way the game was played and — without taking away from what North Carolina accomplished — perhaps its outcome.

The second half was ugly. Both teams reached the bonus with 13:14 to go in the game, turning every foul into a trip to the free throw line. In one incredible stretch, the refs called seven fouls in 92 seconds — that’s one every 13 seconds. One of the seven fouls in that minute and a half was this call on Zach Collins, on which he … lightly and legally jostled for position?

Collins, a springy McDonald’s All American with the wingspan of a condor, fouled out with five minutes to go, robbing the Zags of one of their few functioning offensive weapons and an intimidating defensive presence. The most exciting aspect of the game was the matchup of the two frontcourts, but both teams saw two starting bigs pick up four fouls apiece. In the closing minutes of the year’s closing game, the most important players had to play tentatively — if they were even able to play at all.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It wasn’t a pretty game. Gonzaga shot 12-for-40 from inside the arc, and UNC shot 4-for-27 from outside it. Ideally, a glut of fouls would have opened things up for both teams, with defenders realizing they couldn’t play as tightly without getting penalized. Instead, it added choppiness to a game already filled with it. Announcers pointed out one stretch where Gonzaga didn’t score a field goal for eight minutes of game time. In the Bulldogs’ defense, they scored nine points on 13 free throws in that stretch. It’s hard to score field goals when so many of your possessions end in free throws.

Too many whistles can make even the best matchup unappealing, but sometimes all the calls are necessary. Not on Monday, though. The refs called this airball a deflection off a UNC player when in reality Gonzaga’s Jordan Mathews hucked the ball out of bounds of his own accord.

And in the game’s final minute, they missed a call that could have swayed the balance of the game. After a missed shot by the Tar Heels with the score 66–65, Gonzaga’s Silas Melson and North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks battled for the loose ball, and the tussle led to a jump ball. But while the two were scrapping on the ground, Meeks’s hand went out of bounds.

It doesn’t matter who had possession. If any part of a player is touching out of bounds as he touches the ball, the ball is out of bounds and possession goes to the other team. Gonzaga should have gotten the ball down one with 50 seconds left; it instead got the ball down three with 27 left, and things spiraled out of control from there.

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, this call wasn’t eligible for a review. While the officials can use replay in the final two minutes to determine “which team caused the ball to go out of bounds when there is a deflection involving two or more players,” that doesn’t apply here: They never ruled that the ball went out of bounds in the first place.

Earlier Monday I wrote about a strange situation in the first LPGA major of the year, when a fan at home called in a rules violation, allowing officials to retroactively assess a penalty they had missed the day before. I said it was stupid that such a thing was possible. Less than 12 hours later, I found myself staring at a blatantly missed call in the pivotal moments of a national championship game with no way of telling the refs, HEY, YOU’RE MISSING A VERY OBVIOUS CALL.

Perhaps Monday night’s game was doomed to be ugly. After all, it featured Gonzaga, which statistically had the nation’s best defense, and North Carolina, a team that’s happy to miss shots so long as they get the rebound. But it could have been its own style of ugly, driven by the fascinating strengths and irritating weaknesses of the two best teams in college basketball.

Instead, its tempo and tenor were off. I can’t get caught up in the controversy over critical missed calls, but I do find myself wondering what it would’ve looked like if those two teams had played a normal game. I’d bet Gonzaga is wondering that too.