Last Sunday, Bucknell and Holy Cross met in Lewisburg, Pa., with an early jump on first place in the Patriot League at stake. Down 14 early in the second half, the Crusaders rallied to tie the score at 72 with 29 seconds left.
Bucknell held the ball for one shot. Point guard Darryl Shazier drove into the lane and reversed the ball to leading scorer Mike Muscala, who coolly drained a jump shot from the right elbow with 1.4 seconds left to give the Bison a 74-72 lead.
When Bucknell Coach Dave Paulsen saw Muscala release the shot, he was convinced it was a three-pointer. The officials ruled it was a two-pointer. There was no time for Paulsen to argue because Holy Cross, out of timeouts, was inbounding the ball. Holy Cross point guard Andrew Beinert threw a 75-foot inbounds pass that was caught by center Josh Jones, who quickly tossed a pass to Devin Brown - his team's best shooter. Brown's shot, from about 26 feet, would have counted if it had gone in, but it was wide left as the buzzer sounded.
TV replays later showed that Muscala's shot was, in fact, a three-pointer, and it didn't really matter because Bucknell had won the game. But what if Brown's shot, a squared-up attempt off a well-run play, had gone in? At that moment, it would have appeared that Holy Cross had won the game, 75-74.
That would not have been the case.
By rule, Paulsen could have asked the officials to look at the TV monitor at the scorer's table to see if Muscala's shot was a three-pointer. They would no doubt have seen it as such, the score would have been tied at 75 and Holy Cross would have had to stop celebrating and play overtime.
"The window to check the monitor would still have been open at that point," said John Adams, the NCAA's supervisor of basketball officials. "The rule says after the second live ball, you can't go back. At that point, there had only been one live ball."
To translate: When Muscala's shot went through the basket, it was a dead-ball situation. The Holy Cross inbounds pass created a live ball, and then if a shot had been made the ball would have been dead again.
The ball never would have been live a second time in that situation because the buzzer would have sounded. At that point, the officials would have first checked to see if Brown's shot had beaten the buzzer. Once they ruled that it had, Paulsen would have asked them to check to see if Muscala's shot was a three-pointer and they would have confirmed that.
"We wouldn't have been happy," Holy Cross Coach Milan Brown said. "But if that was the call, that was the call."
But what if Jones had caught the ball, turned and made a two-point shot? At that point it would have appeared that the Crusaders had tied the score at 74. Once the replays had been checked, though, Holy Cross would have been told it had lost the game.
"Oh my God, really?" Brown said. "If that had happened then I would have been totally furious. In fact, I doubt if we'd have ended up losing by one because I'm not sure how many technicals they would have given me before I was done."
Adams, after checking the rule book, confirmed that the game would have in fact ended that way had Holy Cross made a two-point shot and Muscala's shot had been changed to a three-pointer.
"That's a horrible scenario, but it is possible," Adams said. "I can't imagine an official having to tell a team that they lost in that situation. If they're operating with misinformation because of an official's mistake, that's not fair."
Adams was concerned enough about what might have happened - and what could happen in the future - that he said this past week he was going to put an item on the agenda for the annual rules committee meeting in May to address this situation.
"Normally the rules committee doesn't like to pass rules that involve a specific situation that might be considered a one-in-a-million shot to happen," Adams said. "But this is the kind of thing if it did ever happen, especially in postseason, it would clearly be pretty awful."
According to Adams, one of the problems with the rules is that most of them were made before technology changed the game. Each time technology becomes more a part of the game, it creates new scenarios that hadn't been thought of in the past. This would be an example. Exactly how to fix this sort of situation isn't simple. Even if a standby official was added for every regular season game - as already exists in postseason - that official might not have a good enough view to merit stopping play immediately after a shot is made or he might not be able to get it stopped quickly enough in a scramble situation like the one in the Bucknell-Holy Cross game. Often, teams want to get the ball inbounds as quickly as possible in the final seconds to prevent the defense from having time to set up.
"There's no easy answer," Adams said. "But it's certainly something we need to take a look at in the future."
But how soon in the future? What if a play should occur in the NCAA tournament - where wild finishes are frequent - that involves a team converting a two-point buzzer-beater only to find after a replay that it was trailing by three?
"Can you imagine that?" Brown said. "Imagine the officials saying to a coach, 'Really sorry you lost that way, but don't worry: The rules committee is going to get this fixed for next season.' "
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski agreed. "It's not only a terrible way to lose, it's a terrible way to win," he said. "It'd be bad for the game. I'd say it's definitely something that should be looked at as soon as possible."
The scenario may sound far-fetched, but it is far from impossible. Perhaps the rules committee needs to fix this now, not after the season. The NCAA can probably afford the cost of a conference call. Can it afford to have an NCAA tournament game end that way?
"The logical thing to do is address it right now," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "Why wait for something like that to happen? Why not fix it right away?"
Williams believes once the ball is put in play after a shot is made it shouldn't be changed - replay or no replay. "Last year at Virginia Tech, we thought we had hit a three with something like six seconds left in overtime," he said. "We gave them a a layup at the buzzer. Then they went to replay and said our shot was a two - score tied. Obviously if we'd known it was a two we'd have played defense differently.
"At least though we could still win the game. The other way the game is over. Or, worse, your season could be over because you had bad information. That just can't happen."
Except that right now it can happen.
Read more from the author at his blog, feinsteinonthebrink.com.