Feb. 22 had been circled on every Duke fan’s calendar as soon as the 2013-14 regular season schedule was released. The thought of watching Syracuse, led by head coach Jim Boeheim, go head-to-head with the Blue Devils in a raucous environment like Cameron Indoor Stadium provided the kind of hype typically reserved only for the annual visit from the rival Tar Heels. Not only would it be the Orange’s first trip to Cameron, it also would feature the heavyweight battle between two of college basketball’s greatest programs and winningest coaches. The tradition of both teams alone rendered a matchup of colossal proportions, filled with numerous story lines as well as ACC title implications. Even the most casual college basketball fan was left drooling thinking about the magnitude of this game.
And boy, did it deliver. Three weeks after gutting out an epic victory over Duke in Syracuse in front of 35,000 fans at the Carrier Dome, the Orange traveled down to Durham as the No. 1 team in the country. The rematch promised to be an extension of the exhilarating overtime thriller that preceded it three weeks before, with both teams playing undoubtedly the best basketball of their respective seasons.
What transpired lived up to the billing, with both teams going shot-for-shot for the entirety of the game. Fueled by its loss to North Carolina just 48 hours before, Duke edged ahead late in the second half. Losing would simply not be an option for a team unaccustomed to even a two-game losing streak. In contrast to the first game between the two powerhouses, Saturday’s game was more defensive-oriented. Neither team gave the other much room to operate offensively, with the famed Boeheim 2-3 zone suffocating the Duke wings as Mike Krzyzewski’s relentless man-to-man coverage forced Syracuse to take intensely contested shots. Every possession mattered, and it was no surprise that, in the end, the difference between winning and losing came down to a possession with 10 seconds remaining in the game.
By now, we’ve all seen the video dozens of times. Syracuse forward C.J. Fair drove the baseline trailing 60-58, colliding with Duke forward Rodney Hood on his way to the hoop. Hood had slid into position a split second prior, staring down the imposing Fair. He took the contact straight to the chest while Fair finished softly, using the glass to tie the game up at 60. The head official, however, judged that Hood had established position and set his feet prior to Fair lifting off towards the basket, resulting in a game-altering charge that sent Boeheim into a tantrum that will never be matched by another 69-year-old ever again. With expletives spewing from his mouth and his blazer flailing behind him, Boeheim charged the referees, disputing the call fervently. His actions were fruitless, however, and would cost his team the game. He was given two technical fouls and ejected for the outburst.
The Orange would ultimately fall to the Blue Devils 66-60, though critics everywhere immediately began claiming that a block should have been called and the outcome of the game reversed. Many believe the referees aided Duke’s victory by calling the questionable charge on Fair in that situation. Despite officiating veterans stating that the right call was made, there has been significant chatter about whether the play should have resulted in a block, a charge or no call.
This uncertainty, despite the controversy that comes with it, is natural and goes to show just how impactful a referee’s single call can be. Remember the refs are human, and, though we may wish they were perfect, the unpredictability of their calls make the game what it is. Sports need bad calls, no matter how tragic they can be. Robotic referees would make the game seem formulaic, as if the rulebook were a bona fide strategy. It would become common to see teams running to certain parts of the court just to earn fouls, as the referees would be trained to make zero interpretations. Removing bad calls from the game would be like disregarding the First Amendment—it’s the right of the referee himself to make the call, not the bylaws drawn up in the rulebook.
You know that feeling when all the air is sucked out of you when you watch your team crumble at the hands of refs? I’ve felt it many times rooting for my own teams. Sometimes I feel so much rage at what transpired, I almost feel the need to hurl the remote through the TV screen or track down the ref personally on the street to give him my opinion on what went down.
If referees were always perfect, though, who would I be able to put all the blame on when my team loses? Do you think I’d ever actually admit that the other team is better? Hell no I won’t. I’d blame the refs, simply for the sake of sleeping that night.
All in all, I’m glad Saturday’s game came down to questionable refereeing, just like it did three weeks ago in the Carrier Dome. (Anyone remember the clear foul on Hood’s would-be game winning dunk?) It made for a compelling finish and a way for me to say, “Well, at least we didn’t lose the game ourselves.”
The debate will rage on, especially if Syracuse does not win the regular-season ACC title. The Syracuse loss put Virginia in the driver’s seat as the conference tournament looms. Bad call or not, the result of the game allows for there to be a potential third showdown between Syracuse and Duke in the semifinals of the tournament. What real fan wouldn’t want to see that?
Mark Schreiber is a Trinity freshman. His column runs every other Tuesday. Send Mark a message on Twitter @MarkSchreib.