The officials made the right call in the bizarre ending of the Iowa State-North Carolina game on Sunday.
North Carolina lost 85-83. With 1.6 seconds left, the clock failed to start on time when UNC inbounded the ball to Nate Britt. After a review, the referees ruled that the clock would have expired before UNC called a timeout if it had started on time, and the game was over.
The controversy isn’t with the call. Even with the clock delay, it’s unclear if Britt got the timeout before time expired.
The controversy is with the rule itself, and there’s no easy way to fix it.
The central problem is that Britt was behaving as if the time on the clock was legitimate.
He told the AP after the game, “When I looked up at the clock I saw one-point-something time left. I saw staff screaming and trying to call timeout.”
He looked at the clock, saw his coaches clamoring for a timeout, and decided to call timeout under the assumption that UNC would still have a few tenths of a second to get a shot off.
Here’s the full play:
His decision-making was based on the assumption that the clock was correct.
But NCAA rules are blind to that fact. By rule, when there’s a clock malfunction, the referees can review it and retroactively apply the correct time. That’s what happened here.
As the NCAA head of officials said after the game, “It’s a maths problem.” The referees went to instant replay, calculated the time between when the clock should have started and when the timeout took place, realised that it was longer than 1.6 seconds, and declared the game over.
The loophole is that you can’t predict what Britt would have done if the clock started on time. Maybe he would have still called a timeout after the clock had expired, and nothing would have changed. But maybe he would have heaved up a shot, or maybe he would have made an aggressive move to draw a foul.
We simply don’t know how he would have behaved if he saw the right time on the clock.
Britt and UNC’s downfall was assuming the clock was correct, which doesn’t feel entirely fair.
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