At the end of the first OT period, I told a friend sitting next to me (as best I could over the roar of the crowd), "This is fun. Win or lose, I'm glad I came to this game. We have looked death in the face twice and we're still breathing. We have nothing to fear now. We are living on borrowed time. Playing with house money."
The game had an NCAA tourney feel to it. The intensity was almost palpable. The crowd was amazing. The students were terrific in spite of the Wal-Mart bags and the "Roy's Boys" chant. And despite the empty seats--which included 6 entire sections in the upper level behind the baskets. But it seemed as loud as if every seat were filled.
As for the game itself, it was competition at its finest. It is up there as one of the best games I have ever attended--although I noted immediately afterwards that some of the glow of watching the two teams compete had been ruined by the fact that the game was decided not by the players themselves, and not only by a bad call, but a bizarre call. I had never before seen a trailing team mug the ball handler in a blatant attempt to get called for a foul, only to have traveling called on their victim--especially when the muggee is arguably the best point guard in the entire country, making him someone you would expect to be the beneficiary of any doubt. If there were a doubt. And there wasn't.
Still, that feeling of being disenchanted with the game subsided with the passage of time as I reflected on the effort by both teams.
Since Monday, I have heard some fans claim that we should look beyond the foul that wasn't called and blame ourselves for missed shots, bad shots, poor execution, poor defense, poor decision-making, etc. I disagree.
In the final analysis, those things, even if correct, didn't matter.
This game was simply not going to end easily. Neither team was ever going to pull away from the other. We started without the greatest intensity and played just well enough the first half to always remain within hailing distance. When we asserted ourselves early in the second half, and closed the gap to 1-3 points, they responded and increased it back to 4-6. When we finally tied the game, they responded and pulled ahead again. When we sent the game into OT, they retook the lead. We responded. When we took a two possession lead in the second OT, they responded.
Every time we ratcheted up the intensity level, they did the same. And vice-versa. This game was destined to come down to the final possession, no matter how well either team played. The other was going to match them, basket for basket, point for point.
Competition at its best.
And, indeed, the game came down to the final possession. We stopped it. We rebounded. As a practical matter, the game was over, barring a collapse by A-Ron at the free throw line and a last second basket by Tech after having to go the length of the court in 6 seconds.
And then an official decided to take the game out of the hands of the competitors and, by fiat, declared that the last possession had not yet occurred, that Tech would get another possession--another chance--it had not earned.
I will not say that I never complain about officiating. But normally, I gripe for a moment, then let it go. My theory is that you can never determine the impact of a bad call during the normal course of the game. The fact that an official's mistake in the first half or with 5 minutes remaining in the game--or at almost any other time--costs you points or a possession does not mean that it altered the outcome of the game. The fact that the opponent wrongfully scored two points somewhere along the line does not mean that the bad call leading to those points was the deciding factor in a one point loss. Because of the bad call, the game was played differently from that point on than it would otherwise have been. The score being different, the game situations were different, the flow of the game was different, the psychology of the game was different. You can't assume that the game would have progressed in the exact same manner had the correct call been made as it did after the bad call. (Which is why Michigan State fans have been wrong for 19 years.)
The exceptions I make to simply moving on with respect to bad calls are when:
1. It's not just one--a la Duke vs. AU in 2001, which appeared to be the most rigged event this side of professional wrestling or Major League Baseball; KU vs. Notre Dame in '75 (in which KU was called for 50 fouls if I recall correctly), and no attempt was made to even things up for the sake of appearances; or Lakers vs. Kings three or so years ago.
2. When it deprives you of a key player--e.g., the phantom call on Kirk vs. Duke, which kept the best player on the court out of the game for an extended period while Duke came from behind; the phantom call on Keith against Syracuse; and the call against Keith against GT in OT--after which, Jarrett Jack, to quote Dickie V, "WOULD NOT LET HIS TEAM LOSE!" Of course, it was a lot easier not to let his team lose with the opponent's top scoring threat out of the game. Or
3. When the call reopens a decided game. Against Texas in football, KU fans were thrilled as they watched Charles Gordon execute the first down catch that executed the Longhorns. They reveled in their certain victory. The game was over. And then some guy named Freeman Johns, III, who couldn't accept what he had just seen, came out of nowhere and made the only offensive pass interference call involving a receiver extricating himself from defensive contact in making his first cut to free himself in all of college football in the entire season (as far as I can tell), and reopened the game.
Monday night, KU fans were thrilled (or relieved) as they watched A-Ron go high to pull down a missed three point attempt to finally, effectively, close out this team that would not go away. They reveled in their certain victory. And then some guy named Mark Whitehead came out of nowhere and made the only traveling call on an elite point guard getting punched and pushed by the opposition in their attempt to get called for a foul while their own bench was yelling "FOUL, FOUL," in the 100+ year history of college basketball (as far as I can tell), and reopened the game.
Without that farcical call, the game was over, without regard to anything else that had happened up to that moment by either team--good or bad.
Because it is one regular season game against a non-rival, I've let it go--for the most part. I will harp about Freeman Johns III for stealing a program-turning game from us long after my venom from this game has dissipated. I will probably resent Mr. Johns III as long as I resent the official who jobbed Jo Jo in '66-which happened just across campus from where the United Spirit Arena now sits.
But if this had happened against k-state or Mizzou or had cost us an NCAA tourney game, it would be a month before I could compose myself enough to compose anything about the game. At least anything G-Rated.
My friend seated next to me tells me that what I yelled at Mr. Whitehead when he made his preposterous call was not G-Rated and that, if the entire arena had suddenly gone quiet so that I could have been heard more than two feet away, ESPN might be facing FCC fines as you read this.
If you've made it this far.
Speaking of which, someone noted that after A-Ron put up an air ball in the early going, the fans yelled "Air Ball" the next time or two he touched it, and then stopped. He wondered why. The only explanation I could offer was that they must have Attention Deficit Disorder--explaining why they are at Tech rather than UT or A&M.
Still, they were great fans of their team. I applaud them.