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The 2023 NCAA Tournament Elite Eight game between No. 5 seed San Diego State vs. No. 6 seed Creighton was an instant classic. It was also instant controversy. The game sent SDSU to the school’s first Final Four after a heart-racing 57-56 win. However, two calls by the referees down the stretch played a major role in the outcome. The foul on Creighton guard Ryan Nembhard that sent San Diego State’s Darrion Trammell to the line to win the game and the decision not to put any time back on the clock after the Bluejays’ final inbounds pass were both controversial. But CBS college basketball rules analyst Gene Steratore explained both masterfully after the game.

NCAA Tournament officials went ‘old school’ on the final play

NCAA Tournament, Gene Steratore, referees, Creighton, San Diego State
Creighton Bluejays vs. San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament | Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The most controversial call in the San Diego State vs. Creighton Elite Eight game happened on the penultimate play when officials called Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard for a foul on SDSU’s Darrion Trammell (more on that below).

However, the final play was divisive as well, as Creighton’s Baylor Scheierman heaved a full-court pass that tipped off an Aztec’s hands and seemed to hit out of bounds before the clock struck zeroes.

The referees reviewed the play and ended the game, saying the clock had expired. After the game, CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore explained that final call to Greg Gumbel, Charles BarkleyKenny Smith, and Clark Kellogg.

Steratore, a longtime college basketball and NFL referee, noted that he believes the clock didn’t start when the player first touched the ball off of the inbounds pass.

“If that’s the case — as I think it was in this scenario — the officials have a stopwatch at the table,” Steratore explained. “They will then, basically, go back and go old school, even with all this technology, and you’re going to hit the stopwatch, and you’re going to see what time expires from the time the touch occurred to the time the ball hits out of bounds.”

The former referee also explained he didn’t think Scheierman’s foot was over the line, either, so the play was correctly called all around.

The final San Diego State possession wasn’t so black and white, though.

San Diego State vs. Creighton really ended on a controversial foul call

Even if Creighton got the ball back after the final inbounds play, there would have been fractions of a second on the clock, and a win would have been nearly impossible.

The call that truly decided the game was seconds before when SDSU Aztec’s guard Darrion Trammell drove to the hoop on Creighton Bluejays guard Ryan Nembhart with 1.2 seconds remaining. Trammell converted one of two foul shots in a tied game, and SDSU moved on to the Final Four.

On the play, Nembhart’s right hand missed swiping at the ball from behind, but his left hand was clearly on Trammell’s hip. It was a subtle foul, but the NCAA tournament referee deemed it a foul with the game on the line.

After the game, Gene Steratore didn’t have as clear-cut an explanation for whether the call was right or wrong, but he did give the official the benefit of the doubt.

Steratore called it an “angle” play where the trailing official got in position to see the shooter and the defender, and from his angle, it looked like a foul.

“In his opinion, he felt like that left hand had displaced that shooter to a place that affected his shot. That’s his judgment,” Steratore said. “That’s why he’s in this game. That’s the decision that he made based on the angle that he had, and then we can contemplate that.”

Nembhart did push Trammell with left hand. Was it a foul that should have cost the Bluejays the biggest game in school history and a trip to the Final Four?

That all depends on your outlook on basketball refereeing.

If you think a foul in the first quarter is a foul in the fourth quarter, then it’s a foul. If you think the refs should swallow their whistles a bit in the dying moments of a game and let the players decide the outcome, then it’s a bad call.

Personally, I fall more into the latter category than the former, but reasonable minds can agree to disagree on this most fundamental of basketball arguments.


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