Busting Brackets

The call was good, but the officiating for UConn and Iowa in the Final Four wasn’t

The women's Final Four matchup between Iowa and UConn had everything. Most of all it had two superstars, Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark battling for a spot in the national championship, but neither one of them got to decide the game.
Connecticut v Iowa
Connecticut v Iowa / Gregory Shamus/GettyImages

Whether Geno Auriemma, Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards, and a large portion of the general population liked it or not, it was a foul. Once social media got ahold of more angles, and reevaluated the ones used on the broadcast of the women’s Final Four between UConn and Iowa, a textbook moving screen was revealed. Still, Geno, Paige, Aaliyah, and the rest of us, don’t have to like it. 

In the biggest moment of one of the most satisfying battles the sport of basketball, let alone women’s college basketball has provided for us in quite a long time, the officials, who already had a profound impact on the proceedings from the very start, reinserted themselves and robbed us of the ending. 

Whether Bueckers’ last-second three-point shot would have gone in and the former National Player of the Year would have reclaimed her throne from Caitlin Clark, is frankly irrelevant. But it would have been nice to see the shot go up, to have that moment of breathless anticipation that all iconic moments in sports are born from, to have an answer to the question, Caitlin or Paige? If Paige had missed, as he did on a wide-open three-pointer with just over a minute left and her team trailing by four, the outcome would have been just as satisfying if she had knocked down one of the most memorable shots in college basketball history. 

Still, it was a foul. More than the officials, Aaliyah Edwards’s desperation to spring her team’s best player free of Iowa’s Gabbie Marshall, stole the moment away. Then why does the outcome still leave a bad taste in the mouths of so many? 

If you spiked a rum and coke with a bit of truth serum and gave it to any high-level executive at the NCAA or ESPN, it wouldn’t be two minutes before they let you know how desperately they’ve been rooting for their biggest star to win on the biggest stage. There are plenty of great players in women’s college basketball, Paige Bueckers chief among them, but one woman is responsible for the meteoric rise of the sport. 

This isn’t some massive conspiracy, it’s the reality of superstars. A true superstar puts pressure on an officiating crew because, many times, they too are in awe of a player like Caitlin Clark’s brilliance, and if that brilliance is impeded, well it would stand to reason that a rule is being broken and a whistle must be blown. 

There was certainly never an edict from the NCAA to the officials to get Clark’s No. 1 seeded Iowa Hawkeyes to the national championship game, but there didn’t have to be. Lebron James gets calls, Patrick Mahomes gets calls, and Caitlin Clark has ascended to their level. So, in this NCAA Tournament, her team has reaped the rewards. 

The most egregious example came with fewer eyes glued to the TV, in the Round of 32 when Iowa took on No. 8 seed West Virginia. Clark was frustrated and it was visible. For the game, WVU held her to 8-22 from the field with six turnovers, but she still finished the game with 32 points in a 64-54 Hawkeyes win. Iowa finished the game 25-30 from the free throw line, West Virginia, 3-5. 

Last night was not so obvious, but a healthy nudge was provided to the struggling Hawkeyes and their superstar. Just nine fouls were called on Iowa to 18 on UConn, including the one that decided the game, with a 14 to four free throw attempt discrepancy in favor of the Hawkeyes. 

There was little consistency in the way the game was called. It was physical from the start, but that physicality was interrupted by calls like this one:

A clear flow was never established by the officiating crew. There was no clear expectation of what would be called and what wouldn’t. In the first half, UConn, with a short bench, got into foul trouble, despite Clark routinely settling for deep three-pointers. In the third quarter, with Clark reengaged and Iowa aggressively attacking, 10 of the game’s 27 total fouls were called, six on UConn and four on Iowa. 

The third quarter wasn’t a lopsided one from the officials, and there weren’t memorable mistakes, it was just being called tight. 

For those that argue, ‘if it’s a foul in the first minute of the game, it’s a foul in the last” the referees in Cleveland seemed to disagree. Unlike the rest of the game and even the third quarter, in the fourth, they swallowed their whistles. 

The fourth quarter was fantastic, though not always aesthetically pleasing. It was physical and hard-fought, the way a game with a spot in the national championship on the line should be. Entering the final minute, just four fouls had been called and only one was a shooting foul. 

This was a game where UConn’s Nika Muhl and Iowa’s Kate Martin were both sent back to the locker room to evaluate injuries on back-to-back possession, Muhl with a considerable limp and Martin reeling from an elbow to the nose, and both immediately returned to the floor. It was as if the officials, like parents too fed up with breaking up fights between their kids, said, ‘Let them sort it out.’ 

It seemed they understood the magnitude of the moment and stepped out of the way to let Iowa and UConn decide who came out on top. Until they didn’t.

Every officiating crew should strive for consistency and that one missed the mark. No two quarters were called the same, and no clear expectations were established. It’s hard to hit a moving target. 

If the game hadn’t been called that way for the past 10 minutes, maybe Edwards wouldn’t have slid her feet at the last moment to impede Marshall. If Iowa hadn’t shot 10 more free throws throughout the game, maybe UConn wouldn’t have blown a lead that at one point stretched to 12. If Bueckers got the shot off, would it have gone in? Would Clark have answered with a game-winner of her own? 

If, if, if. If doesn’t matter because it was a foul, it was the right call, but it was the worst ending.

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