Tim Sullivan's Sports: A Foul Is A Foul Is A Foul

Mar 26, 2023 at 9:24 pm
Ryan Nembhard (Creighton #2) sticks his hand inside Darrion Trammell's (SDSU #12) jersey before committing a foul by putting his hand on Trammell's hip.
Ryan Nembhard (Creighton #2) sticks his hand inside Darrion Trammell's (SDSU #12) jersey before committing a foul by putting his hand on Trammell's hip. Photo by Carolyn Brown

A foul is a foul is a foul. In the opening minutes or the final buzzer. Whether the outcome is academic or still undetermined.

You can’t have one set of rules for the bulk of a basketball game and then tell the officials to let ‘em play at the very end. You don’t want meaningful games decided by meaningless contact, but neither can you pretend that a player beaten off the dribble, who sticks his hand on the hip of the guy blowing past him, has not negatively impacted that player’s shot.

San Diego State advanced to its first Final Four Sunday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center on the strength of a whistle that might easily have been swallowed. With 1.2 seconds left in a game still tied at 56-all, referee Lee Cassell called a critical and ultimately decisive foul on Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard.

The Aztecs’ Darrion Trammell would miss the first of two free throws, then took a deep breath and sank the second. This gave San Diego State a 57-56 victory, a spot in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four, and left Creighton biting its tongues to hide its bitterness. 

The circumstances were undeniably unfortunate. The call was and will continue to be vigorously debated. It was, to be sure, a lousy way for a game of lasting consequence to be decided. Yet it looked like a foul when Cassell called it, at least to this witness, and again with the benefit of multiple replay angles.

The real issue, though, was not so much whether the call was correct, but whether it was consistent with how the preceding 39 minutes and 58.8 seconds had been officiated. Nembhard’s final foul was only the 22nd called in a game marked by its physicality and, in turn, its poor shooting. Two days earlier, a different crew had called 41 fouls in San Diego State’s upset of top-ranked Alabama.

No two games are identical, of course, and a trailing team will often foul deliberately to stop the clock. Still, had Creighton coach Greg McDermott complained of shifting subjectivity — that the game had been called loosely until it abruptly tightened for the final ticks of the clock — he would have been difficult to dispute.

Instead. . .

“Officiating is part of the game,” McDermott said. “We’re not going to go there. We lost a game because we didn’t do enough, and San Diego State did.”

“We don’t blame officials,” Nembhard said later, at his locker. “When we lose or when we win, we don’t make excuses. So we don’t have no excuses for none of that.”

Considering the stakes and the depth of their disappointment, Creighton’s coach and his players demonstrated unusual forbearance. Six years earlier, denied a trip to the Final Four on a buzzer-beating basket by North Carolina’s Luke Maye, Kentucky coach John Calipari’s post-game complaints helped fuel the fury of Big Blue Nation.

"You know, it's amazing that we were in that game where they practically fouled out my team," Calipari said. "Amazing that we had a chance.”

Kentucky Sports Radio then compounded the controversy with its pointed criticism of referee John Higgins, who claimed to have received death threats and that his business had been harassed by UK fans whose rage had been stoked by the radio station. Higgins later sued the station (unsuccessfully) for “intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, tortious interference with a business, and civil conspiracy.”

It's easy to understand how easily these things can get out of hand; how the same drama and passions that make March Madness so compelling can turn toxic in a twist of fate. 

“It’s hard,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “That’s what we all [try to] do is have some grace in losing, even though we may not agree with the call. You can’t do anything about it. So he [McDermott] is a class act. I’m sure deep down he felt they should have had an opportunity. It didn’t happen. 

“You have to remember, I was at Michigan in 1989 where people questioned whether Rumeal Robinson was fouled, and he made two free throws and we won a national title. So this is not the first time fouls have been called at the end of NCAA Tournament games.”

Nor will it be the last. In a more perfect world, neither the clock nor the score would be a consideration. A foul is a foul is a foul, or at least it ought to be.