There’s nothing worse than when officials needlessly get in the way of a close game’s finish. We can only imagine how players and coaches of Cleveland Central Catholic feel.
As the clock ticked near 40 seconds remaining of the Ohio Division II state title game on Saturday, the Ironmen’s Antwon Lillard drove the lane and threw down a violent two-handed slam, giving his team a 39-35 lead over the Defiance Bulldogs. But the senior hung on the rim and swayed back towards the floor, leading to a technical foul call that proved crucial to the game’s outcome.
The Bulldogs hit both freebies, ultimately sending the game into overtime where they would prevail by a score of 49-45.
Even before doing further research for this post, we assessed that Lillard hung on the rim to protect himself from a hard fall – a crucial subjective interpretation that would make his finish within high school rules. The officials, of course, deemed differently, but Lillard confirmed our suspicions after the game.
“I really attacked the rim hard on that play, and was high in the air,” Lillard told the Northeast Ohio Media Group. “I got to the rim so fast, I wasn’t going to be able to land. It was kind of difficult for me. As I swung on the rim, it was kind of difficult for me to come down. I didn’t want to tweak an ankle or tear something. The referee has the job to make the call that he thinks is right, but I feel he definitely made the wrong call.”
Denny Morris, the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s Basketball Director of Official Development, failed to take proper context into account while siding with the officials.
“A player can hang from the rim if he is protecting himself from injury if a player or players are underneath him,” he told the Northeast Ohio Media Gourp. “There were not any players underneath him, and he pulled himself up and swung excessively.”
What was Lillard to do, then? Leave the rim alone entirely and go crashing into photographers under the basket? Hang initially and let go of the iron as his body is parallel to the hardwood floor? He made the safest play possible instead, and his career ended on an extremely sour note as a result.
It bears mentioning that Central Catholic coach Jeremy Holmes made sure to say that his team had plenty of other opportunities to win following the controversial call. Basketball games, after all, are never decided on a single possession despite the narrative importance of crunch-time indicating otherwise.
But it’s safe to say that grace in defeat isn’t making Lillard or his teammates feel any better 24 hours later. Grey area exists in officiating and these referees opted against utilizing it, drastically altering course of the year’s biggest game to adhere to a rule that’s completely unnecessary in the first place. Shame.
Congratulations to both the Bulldogs and Ironmen on fantastic seasons.