Twenty-two turnovers

On February 11, 1997, our long-time family friend, Billy Bokkon, gave me two tickets to the University of Virginia and Duke men’s basketball game in Charlottesville. Billy was an avid supporter of Virginia athletics with a soft heart for sacrifice. Billy knew that my son, Andrew, and I would enjoy attending this game.

Disclosure here, we are Duke fans. I grew up in North Carolina. My loyalty to Duke rubbed off on Andrew.

I know Andrew was excited about attending this game, and I know he would have been disappointed if Duke loss.

Duke won, but the win was controversial.

After a review, the conference found that the veteran crew of officials: Rick Hartzell, Tim Higgins, and Zelton Steed had mismanaged the closing seconds of the game with Virginia leading by a point.

Seven days after the game, the Commissioner for the Atlantic Coast Conference(ACC), Gene Corrigan, suspended each official for one game.

The crew had failed to allow a substitution for Virginia. In the sequence of events that followed, a Duke player was fouled and hit two free throw shots that allowed Duke to win 62-61.

Twenty-six years later on February 11, 2023, Virginia and Duke played again in Charlottesville. It was a tough game with both teams fighting for the win.

In the closing seconds of this game, a Duke player was fouled with the score tied as time was expiring. Upon review of the last play, the officials ruled that the foul occurred as time expired. No free throws were shot by the Duke player, and the game went into overtime where Duke loss to Virginia 69-62.

Late on the evening of February 11, 2023, the ACC issued a statement deeming the final play of regulation “an incorrect adjudication of the playing rules.”

Once again, the game was officiated by an experienced crew: Lee Cassell, Jeffrey Anderson, and Tim Clougherty.

I can only begin to imagine how difficult it must be to referee a college basketball game. The players are bigger, stronger, faster, and with a shot clock, the pace of the game is much quicker.

Three officials are assigned to referee a college basketball game. I often wonder if adding a fourth official would help in managing the flow of the game, but I’m not sure it would. Referees are like all of us human beings—imperfect, and not immune from making mistakes.

To become a college basketball referee is not easy. To reach this level takes lots of time, energy, effort, and training. Knowing the rules, being able to interpret the rules when violations occur, staying in shape, communication skills, consistency, diplomacy, and the ability to think on your feet are essential.

Also, there is a common denominator for referees, coaches, and players—pressure.

Coaching a college basketball team is precarious work. The livelihood of the coach is in the hands of players whose ages range from 18-21.

Fans, especially alumni, want very badly for their team to win and to become contenders for the national championship.

Players feel that pressure too. Blue chip players are heavily recruited. Once a blue-chipper commits to a team, everyone expects these players to instantly and consistently perform at a higher level than teammates and peers.

Referees encounter levels of pressure from their supervisors, coaches, players, and fans. In game situations, referees are expected to keep their composure at all times. Sometimes, referees are subjected to volatile and hostile treatment from coaches, players, and spectators. An expectation exists that the referees must get the calls right for both teams, no matter the degree of difficulty.

There is also a quiet pressure developing in research labs. Might the combination of technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence lead to robots officiating college basketball games in the future?

But, there is an additional level of pressure to be considered. In the future will conferences like the ACC be able to recruit, train, and keep competent referees for all sports? How might the erosion of civility, decorum, and sportsmanship impact candidates who are thinking about becoming referees?

In either of the games referenced here, my heart hurts for the players, coaches, referees, and fans.

However, in this most recent meeting between Virginia and Duke, I will always wonder if the outcome of the game might have been decided earlier if Duke’s players had not committed twenty-two turnovers. How many of those Duke turnovers could have been converted to points to expand Duke’s narrow lead?

On the other hand, we seem to quickly forget about all of the split second calls made by referees that are correct.

What we don’t want to consistently happen in a college basketball game is grounded in this Yogi Berra quote: “We made too many wrong mistakes.”

Growing up, I loved college basketball. At this stage of my life, my affection is declining. I sense that money, egos, and the desire to win at all cost are gradually eroding the game.

And despite my whines, I prefer the outcome of the game to be decided by the skills of the players, not dedicated referees.

Even Duke’s Jeremy Roach, the team’s captain said this after the loss: “Duke should never be in a position where the referees can decide the game.”

Mr. Roach was correct.

One of the many street-side basketball goals in our neighborhood. (Photo by Bill Pike)

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