Was I upset over the two late calls in the Aggie men's hoops game against Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament? Yes, and no.
The first was a lane violation, that officials called on Aggie forward Troy Gillenwater. Michigan State's Raymar Morgan stepped to the foul line with 19 seconds remaining and the Spartans clinging to a 68-67 lead. He knocked down his first attempt and missed the second. Officials blew the whistle on Gillenwater, though, as the sophomore forward stepped on the line of the key prematurely, giving Morgan another attempt, which he knocked down.
In turn, NMSU was forced to come down and try a 3-pointer to tie things up instead of going for a two. Two tough long balls fell short, as the Aggies' options were limited at that point.
The Aggies kept possession when the ball rolled out of bounds with under a second remaining in the game, but there was just 0.3 seconds remaining in the game. Officials did not go back and review when the ball actually went out of bounds — there was no denying that there was no more than a second left in the game, but one could have made the argument that more than 0.3 of a second should have been on the clock. Even 0.6 or 0.8 would have made a difference. Why?
Rules state that a player cannot get a jump shot off with under 0.4 seconds remaining on the clock. This left the Aggies without any viable options at that point, besides a lob at the hoop and a possible tip in, which would have done them no good anyway, as they needed a 3 to tie.
The Gillenwater call, while stingy, is the right call. In basketball, officials often pick and choose when to blow the whistle and when to let things go. It's a tough game to officiate, and many calls are objectional, not black and white. Could they have let the Gillenwater lane violation go at that point of the game? Of course. Did they miss the call? No. They saw the violation and decided to make the call. Personally, I wish they let it go and allowed the two teams to play on, but what are you gonna do about it?
The lack of time left on the clock for the Aggies on the final inbounds play bothered me. At least review the play and make sure you have the accurate number on the clock. If the play is not reviewable, then it should be looked at as a rule change for the future. This is a team's season on the line here.
Did either play lose the game for the Aggies? No. They didn't help NMSU's cause, but there were other deciding factors in the game that weighed more heavily on the outcome.
For starters, the team went cold down the stretch after battling back in the second half and making a game of things. NMSU missed 10 of its final 11 shots. All those shots came from the perimeter. Granted, the team was forced to take four 3-pointers with under 30 seconds left in an attempt to tie the game late. But I thought the team rushed on offense down the stretch and could have attacked the inside more. They got back into the game with Young penetrating early in the second half and Hamidu Rahman and Troy Gillenwater creating some opportunities inside. Down the stretch of the game, they seemed to settle for jumpers.
The Aggies held their own on the boards — both teams finished with 40 rebounds apiece — but gave up two offensive rebounds late that, in my eyes, hurt. The first came, with NMSU up 61-59, when Michigan State's Raymar Morgan grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to tie the game back up.
The second came when, down 65-63, NMSU allowed Morgan to fly in and dunk home a Durrell Summers 3-point miss.
Both buckets hurt.
But, at the end of the year, the Aggies have a lot to be proud of. They faced a ton of adversity early in the year and found a way to right the ship. After starting the year 3-6, NMSU won 19 of its final 25 ballgames. The returns of Wendell McKines and Troy Gillenwater undoubtedly helped, but the team also just played much better down the stretch of the season and with a sense of purpose. Marvin Menzies deserves credit for keeping the group together and getting them to play to their potential and reaching the NCAA Tournament. The team went to another level as the calendar flipped to 2010 and it should be recognized.
Frankly, the way I viewed the NCAA Tournament was that whatever the Aggies did would be icing on the cake. Winning the WAC Tournament was a proving ground. I thought the team was really playing with house money in Spokane.
But their performance against Michigan State was also impressive. The Spartans have had a bumpy season, but they are still the Spartans — a veteran program under the guidance of veteran head coach Tom Izzo. Izzo has led Michigan State to 13 consecutive NCAA appearances and has won a national title. The Spartans made it the championship game last year. These two teams are not accurate comparisons.
The Aggies fell behind early — 13 at the half — but battled back. The team went on a 13-2 run to start the second half and eventually took a 53-52 lead on a Gordo Castillo 3-pointer. From there, the game was a see-saw affair, and really could have gone either way. And it was the Aggies playing loose and confidently. Gillenwater was fouled and, while on the ground, was lifted up by all four of his teammates, smiling. When Michigan State retook the lead, 58-55, NMSU continued swinging, going on a 6-1 run to go back up 61-59 with 6:30 remaining.
In the end, it was the Spartans who found a way to come out on top, but it was the Aggies who put a scare in them.
It felt like to separate seasons for these Aggies. But, when it was all said and done, it ended strong. Very strong.