After whistle hastens Samford's exit from March Madness, the referee could be next

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Kansas guard Nicolas Timberlake (25) brings the ball up-court between Samford forward Nathan Johnson, left, and guard Dallas Graziani (12) during the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Isaac Hale)

SALT LAKE CITY – The referee who blew the critical whistle that worked against Samford at the end of its loss to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament might be following the Bulldogs straight out of town.

It is routine for evaluators to analyze games and decide which officials move on to call the next round. The NCAA said it does not comment on judgment calls, meaning one way to determine its take on the end of the Kansas 93-89 win will be to see if referee Lamar Simpson is assigned to either of Saturday's games in Salt Lake City.

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Simpson was behind the play with 14.7 seconds left Thursday night when Samford's A.J. Staton-McCray caught up to Nicolas Timberlake and blocked his layup from behind.

Simpson called a foul, leading to two free throws that gave KU a three-point lead. Replays from a number of angles showed no contact on the play that sent Timberlake crashing to the floor.

Kansas coach Bill Self acknowledged Friday that his team caught a break.

“We were fortunate with that one call, there’s no question,” he said. “But there’s 100 calls throughout a game.”

Former referee John Clougherty, who worked in 12 Final Fours before becoming supervisor of refs in the Atlantic Coast and other conferences, told AP he looked at a clip of the play “and there is no contact on that play.”

He said it's not uncommon for an official to come to a site assigned to work two games but have the assignment switched if the first game goes poorly.

“We're talking about last plays that are deciding games, not an incorrect travel call or something like that,” Clougherty said. “I don't want to call it discipline, but when his evaluation comes down, he might not get that second game.”

Clougherty said a rule he has always held to over decades of officiating is to err on the side of not making a call.

“The mindset is always, when I blow the whistle, I want to be able to justify the contact,” he said. “You have to be on the side of, let's make our no-calls our mistakes. Not the one where you blow the whistle and the replay embarrasses us because there's nothing there.”

The call brought with it the issue of whether the NCAA should expand a replay system that currently doesn't allow review of judgment calls on the sort of last-second foul that helped decide Thursday's game. The AP asked a handful of coaches around the country about it Friday:

—Self said replays that are allowed extend the ends of games. “The thing about basketball, it’s comprised of human beings that actually, at times, could miss something. Players miss something. Officials can miss something,” he said.

— Creighton's Greg McDermott also said he worries about too many replays slowing down the games. “I would probably want to talk to the NBA guys” to see how they like the rule in their league that allows for coaches' challenges, he said.

— Illinois' Brad Underwood said he wishes coaches could challenge foul calls in college. Regrading the Samford call, he said, “It was a tough play, and you kind of live with the outcome.”

— Arizona's Tommy Lloyd: “Listen, I think we’ve got to be open to" coach-initiated reviews on fouls. "At the end of the day, the number one deal is, get the calls right.”

College basketball does allow for reviews of some plays, including buzzer-beaters and shot-clock issues, shooters stepping on or behind the 3-point line, reviews to see if flagrant fouls were committed and out of bounds plays in the last two minutes.

But on the biggest play of Thursday's game, there was no recourse.

Afterward, Timberlake insisted he had been fouled. Staton-McCray disagreed and said if there was a foul, “I guess Casper hit him.”

Clougherty, the officiating lifer, recalled a Sweet 16 game in 1990 between Georgia Tech and Michigan State in which he counted a game-tying basket even though replays showed the ball was still in Kenny Anderson's hands when the buzzer went off. Video reviews of buzzer-beaters were still 10 years away, so the call stood.

Georgia Tech went on to the Final Four that year. Clougherty did not.

“These NCAA games, as close as they are, you better not miss a critical play, or they'll find someone else to referee the games,” Clougherty said.


AP Sports Writers Will Graves and Eric Olson contributed.


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