UNC vs. NC State Officiating: Why Alex Johnson No-Call Was the Correct Call

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UNC vs. NC State Officiating: Why Alex Johnson No-Call Was the Correct Call
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
It's amazing how good the officiating is when you aren't rooting for either team

With just 15 seconds left to play in the University of North Carolina vs. NC State semifinal matchup in the ACC tournament on Saturday, UNC's Kendall Marshall found himself tightly defended by Wolfpack guard Alex Johnson.

Mere fractions of a second later, Johnson went flying backwards with nary a referee's whistle to be heard, allowing Marshall to complete his drive with a game-deciding layup, which he banked off the glass for a 69-67 score.

ESPN analyst Len Elmore went ballistic: "How is that...How can that...How?"

NC State head coach Mark Gottfried resorted to histrionics, demonstrating what he believed was a clear charge by driving his right fist through his left palm.

Meanwhile, several UNC fans were screaming for an and-one and a free throw or two.

Still, officials Tim Nestor, Ray Natili and Brian Dorsey withheld their whistles: It was a no-call.

Seconds later, the Tar Heels looked poised to escape with the win as Justin Watts intercepted a Scott Wood pass and hurled it to other opposite end of the floor as the seconds ticked away: three...two...one...

Credit NC Stater Johnson for hustling until the very end, for he chased down Watts' catapult throw and the Wolfpack called a time out with 0.6 seconds remaining.

After the officials revised the game clock, giving NC State 1.2 seconds to work with, Wolfpack forward Richard Howell attempted to catch and release a desperation, OT-forcing buzzer beater.

After the buzzer sounded and the officials declared the game over, Howell joined coach Gottfried in screaming at the officials, convinced that the men in stripes had missed yet another foul call, this time a buzzer-beater of a call that should have sent Howell to the free-throw line.

What follows is a breakdown of the preceding two plays and why the two no-calls were both correct officiating decisions.

 

Play 1: Kendall Marshall and Alex Johnson No-Call

NCAA Rule 4-35 defines legal guarding position as "the act of legally placing the body in the path of an offensive opponent." To establish initial legal guarding position, the player must have booth feet touching the playing court and face his torso towards his opponent.

To maintain legal guarding position after legally establishing it, the guard may shift to maintain his position so long as the guard does not cause contact and may move laterally or obliquely to maintain position provided that such a move is not toward his opponent when contact occurs.

If a defender has established and is maintaining legal guarding position, it is an offensive foul under Rule 10-10 when the dribbler causes contact and displaces the defender.

Replays conclusively indicate defender Johnson did not have legal position at the time of contact with dribbler Marshall, though he initially did establish legal position.

As ESPN analyst Digger Phelps declared postgame, Johnson "cut him off": Johnson failed to maintain legal guarding position because his last-second modification to his oblique angle changed his position so that he is considered to have been moving into his opponent (Marshall) when contact occurred.

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Because Johnson did not appear to be legal when contact occurred, it may be said that he "flopped," or faked getting fouled when it was he who could have been called for a blocking foul.

The options for officials in this situation are two-fold: Call a block or no-call the play. Under no circumstance was this an offensive foul.

The officials were correct in no-calling the play, as the contact proved incidental for Marshall, whose speed, rhythm, balance and quickness were not affected as he was able to score the field goal.

 

Play 2: Richard Howell Buzzer-Beater No-Call

While Howell and Gottfried campaigned for a last-second foul call that never came, replays conclusively demonstrate that Howell never gained possession of the throw in and was never fouled. It was a desperation attempt that fell flat when the inbounds pass was broken up.

At this point, it is a loose ball and cannot be a possession attempt (a throw). Though Rule 4-73 specifies the act of shooting or try for goal as, "an attempt by a player to score two or three points by throwing or tapping the ball into his or her basket," great judgment must be given in regards to a tap.

Rule 4-67 defines a tap as a try in which, "a player attempts to score two or three points by directing a live ball into his or her team's basket with his or her hands or fingers."

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Some say the block-charge call is the most difficult call to make in professional sports.

A tap begins when the player's hands or fingers first touch the ball and ends when the tap is either successful, unsuccessful (blocked) or becomes dead.

When Howell attempted to field the deflection, he was not attempting a tap: he attempted to catch and possess the basketball in what is often known as a "catch-and-shoot" or "catch-and-release."

Not only did Howell never catch the ball, he was not fouled, period. Contact that may have occurred between the two teams was incidental as Howell was not in a position to corral the loose ball.

In the end, the officials got these two key plays right, though it takes an extremely thorough analysis of video, officiating axioms and the NCAA rules book to see exactly why. 

 

Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.

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