NEW YORK -- Who would have pegged St. John's-Rutgers to provide the first madness-inducing moment of conference tourney season? The Internet lit up over the ending to Wednesday's wild finish at the Big East Tournament -- unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.
In a bizarre last-second sequence marred by colossal officiating mistakes, the Red Storm survived 65-63, despite jubilant St. John's forward Justin Brownlee taking three steps toward the sideline, crossing the out-of-bounds line and tossing the ball into the crowd. Replays showed quite clearly that Brownlee's foot was out of bounds with 1.7 seconds remaining. About 45 minutes after the game, the Big East issued a statement acknowledging two "missed violations" -- traveling and stepping out of bounds -- that "should have caused the game clock to stop and change of possession to occur."
Instead, the horn sounded, and the officials left the court. Because they hadn't called anything, there was nothing they could have reviewed on the monitor.
The controversial ending to an otherwise insignificant game caused mass outrage from fans around the country afterward. On Twitter, several notable basketball analysts were already calling for the NCAA to remove the crew from consideration for any further postseason assignments. That could make for an interesting decision, since two of the three officials, Jim Burr and Tim Higgins, are well-known veterans often employed for some of the sport's most high-profile games. (Earl Watson was the third crew member.)
John Adams, head of NCAA officiating, told ESPN.com late Wednesday afternoon that the no-calls were "unacceptable." Adams, who selects the officials for the NCAA tournament, said, "We'll notify the guys sometime Sunday if they're working or not."
To his credit, first-year Rutgers coach Mike Rice repeatedly took the high road in his postgame news conference, resisting the urge to criticize the officials despite numerous questions about the play. ("Believe me, there's going to be blood coming through my tongue, but it is what it is," he said.) He called the crew "three great officials" and continually repeated some variation of the notion that "mistakes happen. ... I made a ton of mistakes in the last 48 hours of my life."
But he most certainly knew it was a mistake, even though no statement had yet been rendered at the time he spoke. In the locker room immediately afterward, Rutgers SID Jason Baum loaded up Twitter on his Droid, found a link to a YouTube clip of the play and showed it to the coach.
"I'm sure they're going to admit it's a mistake because it's on YouTube now," Rice said prophetically. "... He literally took three steps. The game should have been one more play. Does that mean we're going to win? Certainly not. It was a mistake and that's what happens in basketball."
The missed travel/out-of-bounds was merely the culmination of a horrendously officiated game, which included several no-calls on seemingly obvious fouls by St. John's in the frantic final minute, most notably when Rutgers' Mike Coburn drove for a potential go-ahead layup with about 10 seconds remaining, and during a scrum to rebound a missed Red Storm free throw on the other end.
Whether any of those would have helped the 13th-seeded Scarlet Knights pull off the upset will forever remain unknown, but it certainly made for a bitter end to a 15-17 season (Rice said he did not expect his team to earn a postseason invitation) and, for the seniors, their careers.
"There were plenty of opportunities throughout the game that we could have controlled and maybe we could have had a better outcome," Coburn said. "I'm a senior, been here four years ... I really wanted to keep winning and it's tough. But you can't hang your head on that."
St. John's, meanwhile, moves on to a quarterfinal game Thursday against Syracuse. Here's hoping that, or any number of other tourney games in the coming days, produces a memorable buzzer-beater or six-overtime classic, because March Madness isn't supposed to literally make fans mad.