A lot will be said about what happened in Ames on Monday night. But where the heck do you even start?
Thirty-nine minutes and 50 seconds of perhaps the best basketball game played in Ames in decades was discarded by one feeble non-decision.
The last 10 seconds of regulation were a dreaded turn-of-events that will be remembered for years to come. Game on the line. Huge collision. Appears to be an offensive foul. Everybody waits for a whistle…and nothing. Nothing. There has to be something. Anything. Nope, nothing.
Here’s the play.
People still chat about the Phantom Three in the Phog from 2004 like it was yesterday. The officiating crew for that game? Paul Janssen, Danny Hooker and Tom O’Neill.
That error happened in the first half of a game in Lawrence that Kansas eventually won in overtime.
That was bad. This was worse.
Who was the official responsible for not making a call at the end of the 2013 debacle in Ames? Tom O’ Neill. A cruel irony that is hard to shake.
As an official, you try to blend in with the game. I’m guessing Mr. O’Neill was trying to blend in inconspicuously during the final play. The old, “let the players decide it.” But by not doing anything, he decided plenty.
Yes, logic says that if Iowa State makes one more play prior to Kansas’ last possession; makes one more free throw, one more jumper, stops one of the innumerable Kansas transition layups, gets one defensive rebound, then nobody remembers the officials. But the Cyclones left themselves open for a head-butt and there was nobody who had the gumption to rule it illegal.
The reaction around the college basketball world was instant and visceral; Iowa State got kicked in the gut. While the sympathy from others is a small solace to the sickening defeat, numbers can’t see. The RPI has no idea what an asterisk is. Instead of another good win tallied on the Iowa State resume, the apathetic numbers see a loss; plain and simple. And the chances to get wins are dwindling.
It’s a shame really. A night that should have gone down in the annals as one of the all-time wins gets remembered for the bitter end. The Cyclones knocked down an unfathomable 17 treys against a KU defense that was running at them all night. Tyrus McGee put on a show that had him trending on Twitter. The Stringtown, Oklahoma native was so locked in, he could have put a beach ball in a peach basket. 22 points and six threes and none of them touched the rim.
The first half was dominated by a terrific coaching match-up between Bill Self and Fred Hoiberg, each counter-punching each other’s chess move like a high-level negotiation.
Iowa State put up 90 points in regulation on a Kansas team that led the nation in field goal percentage defense. The Jayhawks have given up more than 75 points just four times this season; two to Iowa State.
And give a tip of the cap to Elijah Johnson, who put on a clinic in the final 15 minutes and overtime, pouring in 39 points for the game; the most points scored by a visitor in Hilton in nine years.
The game had a hair-pulling 11 ties and 18 lead changes. Two titans throwing dagger after dagger. And the Hilton atmosphere was nothing short of remarkable.
For all of the complaining about lack of offense enveloping the college game, the Cyclones and Jayhawks provided a window into the past and the future. Offense can still live in these physical times. They put on a two plus hour show. Hoiball had everyone from Ole Miss’ gunslinger Marshall Henderson to former Duke All-American Jay Williams espousing how fun it is to watch Iowa State play. They felt the flow.
And to the officials credit, the game had great pace and movement for almost its entirety. The men in stripes were largely irrelevant until the final several possessions.
But all that appeared right with college basketball in Ames was upchucked in the final ten seconds of regulation. It’s difficult to think about anything else and that is what is hardest to comprehend. One “non-decision, decision” erased it all.
Tom O’Neill, Bert Smith and Mark Whitehead (the officials working the Iowa State-Kansas game) have all worked Final Fours. They have been judged as three of the best. Those are the facts. O’Neill happened to make an egregious error in front of the 14,376 at Hilton and the millions watching at home. Many will say there is a systematic problem with college basketball officials. That the whole thing needs to be blown up and reconfigured. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Iowa State got caught on the wrong side of a call that should have been made and an official that decided to let the play go on.
One man made an absolutely indefensible error, and in that moment it cost Iowa State a huge win on what could have been a historic night in Hilton.
We can only hope the NCAA tournament committee has the vision to see what really happened.