In an ugly scene that will undoubtedly reignite the longstanding debate about fans rushing onto the court, a fight broke out between New Mexico State and Utah Valley players and those who stormed the floor following the Wolverines' 66-61 overtime victory on Thursday.
Details are still emerging from UCCU Events Center, but the already-tense scene escalated when K.C. Ross-Miller of New Mexico State threw a basketball at Utah Valley's Holton Hunsaker. Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports spoke to the Utah Valley sports information director, who indicated subsequent brawls then broke out between New Mexico State players and fans on the floor:
Utah Valley SID: Brawl began when NMSU's KC Ross Miller threw ball at Holton Hunsaker. NMSU players were fighting w/fans who rushed court.— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) February 28, 2014
On Friday, ESPN.com reported that Ross-Miller has been suspended by the school:
Ross-Miller hurled the ball at Utah Valley's Holton Hunsaker as the final second expired in the Wolverines' 66-61 overtime victory at Orem, Utah, on Thursday night.
"No matter what provoked KC what he did was inexcusable and hence the suspension," New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said Friday. "It is an honor and a privilege to wear an Aggie uniform and a responsibility comes with that privilege. I will wait until I've had a chance to talk with our conference officials and university administration before any other disciplinary actions may or may not be taken.
We are currently reviewing several sources of video to accurately assess the situation," Menzies said. "Obviously this was a very unfortunate incident and I'm hopeful that we can learn from it moving forward."
CBS Sports' Matt Norlander provided Utah Valley's statement:
Utah Valley releases a statement regarding Thursday night court storm/brawl incident. That statement in ensuing tweets ...— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) February 28, 2014
"The incident following Thursday’s game was an unfortunate and sour endnote to an otherwise brilliant performance by both teams. ...— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) February 28, 2014
"The WAC and both universities are reviewing the incident and gathering information. Any questions should be directed to the WAC office."— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) February 28, 2014
Based on videos captured of the fracas, it mostly consisted of pushing and shoving, though there were multiple punches thrown. One video clearly captures a New Mexico State player, whose jersey number is unclear from the distance, going into the pile and swinging his right hand:
Another angle shows another New Mexico State player falling to the ground as officials quickly worked to get students off the floor and players into the locker room. While no medical reports have been officially released at this time, it looks as if players and coaches got out of the situation without suffering any serious injuries.
It's unclear if Hunsaker did anything to instigate Ross-Miller's actions, though it's inexcusable and immature regardless. The two were exchanging words near center court when fans began mobbing the floor—an unfortunate piece of timing that wound up marring one of the better games of this Western Athletic Conference season.
Utah Valley got 21 points from Ben Aird and clawed its way back in the final seconds of regulation to force overtime. The Wolverines then controlled the tempo throughout the extra session to move their record to a surprising 11-3 in conference play.
New Mexico State has made the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons, but only a victory in the conference tournament will likely send the Aggies to March Madness in 2014.
Students rushing the court is a time-honored tradition that has mostly been allowed to stand without consequence. Schools and conferences have begun enacting penalties—the SEC fines members who allow students to come on the floor—but no one has gone with an outright ban or truly harsh penalties.
The issue at hand is safety for all parties. Fans often storm the court when adrenaline is at its highest. They're not rushing during early-season blowouts over cupcakes; they're doing it after huge wins over rival opponents, upset victories no one saw coming or even the overtime thriller between unranked opponents we saw at Utah Valley.
The visiting players, who just seconds ago were pouring everything they have onto the floor, aren't as receptive to the onrush of students. Too often, coaches are having to quickly get their players off the floor simply to avoid frustrations boiling over. And just as fans are endangering themselves against angry players, these student-athletes have no guarantees that an unruly or inebriated fan won't rush them and attempt to pick a fight.
It's a wonder things like this don't happen more often.
Opinions on the subject are divided. Some see the safety hazards and hope to ban court-rushing outright. Others, like ESPN's Digger Phelps, see the exuberance as an opportunity for fans to make a lifelong memory, per Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star:
The SEC—oh, you can’t rush the court because it’s a $25,000 fine or a $5,000 fine (for a first offense)—please. You know what you do? At your 20-year reunion you’re going to talk about it. And some student who is now a multi-, multi- millionaire says, "Yeah, I’m going to give $20 million for the school to build a new science department." Based on him rushing the floor 20 years ago. That’s what that is.
Phelps makes a valid point, and most of the time storming the court is an entirely harmless act that everyone understands is a part of the game. But the reality of the situation is what happened on Thursday could have been far, far worse. There is a reason a separation exists between fans and athletes during the game.
The NCAA needs to look long and hard at whether it's worth extending that separation to after games as well—even it if takes some of the "fun" away.
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