ATLANTA -- Luke Hancock was at the free-throw line with 8.8 seconds remaining and a three-point lead, meaning a make would've almost certainly secured a trip to the national title game for Louisville. But he didn't make it. He missed long. And when Wichita State's Ron Baker rebounded the ball, the stage was set for a dramatic and perfect ending.
Wichita State was about to have a shot at the buzzer.
To force overtime.
So everybody inside the Georgia Dome -- except the large contingent of Louisville fans, I suppose -- was ready. Within a few seconds, a Wichita State player would launch a shot at the rim, and a high-stakes game would hang in the balance. But then Baker lost his balance and put the ball on the floor, at which point Hancock got his hands in there. The two players wrestled over the ball for a fraction of a fraction of a second before Baker regained control and passed to Malcolm Armstead, who caught the ball with more than six ticks remaining, i.e., plenty of time to rush up the court and either take or create a shot.
But then Karl Hess blew his whistle.
(Of course, he did.)
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Hess called a held ball even though Armstead was the only player holding the ball by the time that he called it, and that was the game. The possession arrow favored Louisville, you see. So when Hess blew that late and unnecessary whistle, he effectively ended Wichita State's season while robbing the sport of a potentially terrific moment.
Karl Hess, on behalf of the sport, I boo you.
Why did you have to blow that whistle?
"That's just basketball," Baker said in Wichita State's locker room following what ended up being a 72-68 loss for the Shockers. "Sometimes there are controversial calls."
And bad calls, too.
And let the record show that Baker was way kinder in his postgame comments than I ever would've been had a referee ripped what will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity away from me with a quick whistle. I lobbed the redshirt freshman a question hoping he'd react the way that I would've reacted, but the former zero-star recruit handled it maturely.
Good for him.
But bad for Karl Hess.
I get that officiating at the Division I level is difficult, but it doesn't have to be as difficult as these guys sometimes make it. The three-man crew of Hess, Les Jones and Terry Wymer called 43 fouls in 40 minutes, which killed the rhythm and made the first of two national semifinals last for what felt like forever. But whatever. I'm not upset about a questionable call here or there as much as I'm bothered by the unnecessary call at the end.
It wasn't a foul.
It shouldn't have been a held ball.
It honest to goodness shouldn't have been anything.
All any of us want when we watch a game is for the players to decide things while the officials control things but stay out of the way as much as possible. That's not much to ask. And yet, in this case, which is too often the case, the officials couldn't stay out of the way, and they failed Wichita State and college basketball in general. Nobody knows whether WSU would've made or missed a shot at the buzzer, or if the Shockers would've won in overtime had they reached OT. The odds were against them, obviously. But they deserved the chance, and fans deserved to watch them have that chance. Hess just needed to swallow his whistle and, you know, let the players decide the possession.
But he didn't.
He instead called a held ball with 6.3 seconds remaining.
Even though Armstead was the only player holding the ball.
And Wichita State wasn't the only loser here.
College basketball lost, too.
Fans should've spent Saturday night talking about Wichita State's shot at the buzzer that forced overtime. Or Wichita State's shot at the buzzer that missed. One or the other. Instead, fans spent Saturday night talking about a held ball that wasn't really a held ball, about a whistle that was as late as it was unnecessary and wrong.