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One gaffe shouldn't mar Big East refs' careers

Posted by Bob Ryan, Globe Staff  March 10, 2011 01:56 PM

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What strikes me as I examine the wild ending of the much-discussed St. John's-Rutgers Big East Tournament game is why things like that don't happen more often.

That is to say, I feel sorry for referees Tim Higgins, Jim Burr, and Carl Walton, who have fallen on their swords and will not be working any more games in New York this week.

Before we get into the matter of what fouls should or should not have been called, I am willing to exonerate the three officials for their (non)-actions in the fateful, final 1.7 seconds. I mean, it was just a bizarre scene. The game was, for all intents and purposes, over. Justin Brownlee of St. John's had picked up a loose ball and what does he see but his own coach, having personally decided that the game had indeed come to a conclusion, walking toward rival coach Mike Rice for the ceremonial postgame handshake.

He kind of runs with the ball (while also stepping out of bounds) and then he throws the ball away. Technically speaking, he committed three violations. But the officiating trio were themselves walking toward the exit runway, and nothing was called.

And please let the record show that none of this was on the mind of Rutgers coach Rice. He was busy making a chopping sign, signifying that he felt his player had been fouled as he tried to catch a pass thrown from the end of the court. I happen to agree with him.

So it's all revisionist history if Rice now claims he was aware of the Brownlee transgressions. I don't want to hear it.

People need to get a grip. All hell was breaking loose. St. John's coach Steve Lavin thought the game was over. Rice thought the game was over. The referees thought the
game was over. They were all wrong. But the key word is "all."

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Rutgers could have been given the ball back with 1.7 seconds left.
they mighta/coulda scored to tie it up or win it. The odds were slim, and I can't get worked up about it. I much prefer not to have games decided by stupid technicalities, and that's what this would have been.

There was discussion about whether or not a foul should have been called on Rutger's penultimate possession. Rutgers was down by one when Mike Coburn barreled into the lane for what can only be described as a ridiculous heave of a leaner. It was a 99.999 percent no-hoper, a terrible shot and a terrible judgment with plenty of time on the clock and open men all over the place. Was he hit? Probably. Should he be rewarded, whether in the first minute or final second, for such a wild piece of garbage?

Not if I'm reffing. That was a very good no call.

But I do think Rutgers has a gripe about the way their man was hit as he tried to catch the long lead pass on their next possession. The St. John's kid whacked him, giving him no chance to catch the ball. That, to me, was an obvious foul, but it, too, was ignored.

Missing calls happens. Referees are human. There will always be missed calls.

But the other stuff was just plain crazy. I don't know Carl Walton,but I do know that Tim Higgins and Jim Burr are two of the best refs ever, with a combined total of 24 Final Fours. I'm sure they'd like to have that 1.7 seconds back, but when you look at it, you can understand how they took it all at face value, especially with Lavin walking toward Rice with time remaining. This could have happened to anyone.

I just hope the Powers That Be don't overract. Higgins and Burr have suffered enough. They must be brought back. The NCAA cannot afford to have officials of this caliber sitting home when the big games come.

And we know this much: with all this publicity, what happened at Madison Square Garden in those final 1.7 seconds Wednesday will never, ever, be repeated, at any level, be it high school college or the NBA. Therein lies a cautionary tale for everyone, and that includes coaches who get a little carried away with themselves, which the quite theatrical Lavin clearly did.

But this is not how we should frame Tim Higgins and Jim Burr. One understandable gaffe should not override brilliant refereeing careers.

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About bob ryan's blog Opinions, observations and anecdotes from Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan.
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Bob is an award-winning columnist for the Globe and the host of "Globe 10.0" on Boston.com.

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