The scene was set. Marcus Thornton, the CAA Preseason Player of the Year, held the ball at the mid court. Ten seconds on the clock and the score knotted at 78.
The agile guard shifted left and right and left again, with Hofstra’s Dion Nesmith rocking along. Thornton caught Nesmith leaning the wrong way and burst through the lane as the clock wound down.
Thornton bounded toward the basket, his trademark dreadlocks in hot pursuit, and found his final obstacle: Malik Nichols. Nichols shifted into the paint, planting himself between Thornton and the basket. Five seconds on the clock. Thornton leapt toward the basket. Nichols fell. Whistle.
3.7 seconds on the clock and all eyes on the referee underneath the basket. Foul on the defense – blocking.
Thornton calmly went to the line and sunk a pair of free throws to put William & Mary up by the final 80-78 margin.
Hofstra had one more opportunity to tie or take the lead. Nichols inbounded to Ameen Tanksley, who found Nesmith on the other side of the court. Nesmith drove from the left wing but had the ball poked away before he could get too close. The horn sounded with Nesmith and the Hofstra bench bewildered, looking for a call. This time the zebras took no action.
This isn’t an attack on the referees. This is a simple plea: Let the kids play.
By the letter of the law, Thornton’s drive to the basket was probably the right call. Nichols shifted his feet with Thornton in the air, but don’t you think it’s a lot to ask of a college kid to stand still when he has another finely tuned athlete flying at his face? On the other side of the court, it’s hard to tell what happened to Nesmith on the final play, and don’t think you were going to find out anything from PR master Joe Mihalich.
“The ref didn’t call a foul, so there was no foul,” was all you could get out of the Hofstra coach.
Give him credit. To go from an impassioned criticism of a series of events on the court to outright thanking the officials after the game takes a level of self-control I certainly don’t possess. In further credit to his coaching ability, Mihalich’s self-control extends seamlessly to his players.
“I probably took one too many dribbles,” Nesmith said before issuing Mihalich’s same line. “I should have pulled up from 3 and shot it.”
These two teams played a thrilling contest that went down to the wire. It was all you could hope for as a fan of the game and a great preview of what the CAA tournament will look like in just a few weeks. The game was fantastic and the players should have been the ones to finish it.
It’s common practice for the officials to be more lenient in the final seconds. Less than two weeks ago, I watched in Bridgeport as Fairfield fell to Quinnipiac by a point. The Stags’ star, Marcus Gilbert, had the ball under the basket as the clocked ticked down. Was there contact? Sure, but it was under the basket. Bodies are going to bump down there, but the referees let the players decide it. Gilbert actually got two looks at the basket that day but couldn’t convert. If he were sent to the line in that critical moment, it would have cheapened the game.
The officials had an even easier situation Sunday afternoon at Hofstra. The score was tied and the game could have easily gone to overtime. The outcome may not have changed, but at least the players would have fought another round to decide that outcome.
Next time, let the kids play.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.