They were two teams too close for comfort. Each other's.
The width of a slip of paper separated Arizona and Wisconsin in Saturday night's NCAA West Regional final. And in the end, when Wisconsin won an overtime thriller of thrillers, it was the kind of game they will remember in NCAA basketball tournament lore forever.
The final score, before 17,814 in Anaheim's Honda Center, was 64-63, and few will remember that. Margin of victory is all that mattered.
Those who were there, or were watching on TV, will remember it as the kind of game where every screen was contested, every shot, even every referee's call.
Almost from the start, it felt like a game that actually needed to go to overtime to be fair. It was that close. The teams — beautifully coached, perfectly primed to play, matched in skills like few teams on this level — had to know that it would come down to a moment.
One moment. Something so close that it would properly speak to the quality and competitiveness of this game.
And so it did.
In overtime, Wisconsin had the ball out of bounds under the basket it was defending. It had a one-point lead, and there were 3.2 seconds left.
After a timeout, Sam Dekker, a 6-foot-7 sophomore from the unlikely basketball mecca of Sheboygan, Wis., waited to pass it in, as Badgers players cut and wiggled to get open and Arizona players stuck like glue.
He had five seconds to do so or lose possession. Not an option. Finally, veteran point guard Traevon Jackson cut to the corner, right in front of the Arizona bench. Hot in pursuit was the Wildcats' Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who reached in at the last second and disrupted the play enough for the ball out to end up going of bounds.
Whose ball was it?
The referees, Bryan Kersey, Tony Green and Mike Eades, made no call. Like the game, it was that close. Who touched it last? Who knew? They seemed not to.
The referees went to the TV replay. They watched and watched. At courtside, getting the same replay looks the officials were getting, were announcers Steve Kerr and Marv Albert. From press seats right behind them, it was impossible to tell.
Both players reached and seemed to touch. Impossible to really see who might have touched it last. The referees huddled, broke the huddle, then huddled again.
Beleaguered throughout from both benches, the referees had called a technical foul early on Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan for unsportsmanlike conduct. That means he said something nasty to them.
“I got myself overly involved at the beginning,” Ryan said.
Later, Arizona's Sean Miller appeared to be close himself to pushing the referees' patience over the edge. Every call, every play, every moment meant so much
Seldom have three men with whistles been put in a tougher position.
Arizona was the No. 1 seed, Wisconsin No. 2. Arizona's record was 33-4, Wisconsin's 29-7. Ryan, 67, regarded as one of the finest college coaches in the country, had never failed to take a team to the NCAA tournament in his 13 seasons He had also never gotten one to the Final Four.
Arizona's Miller, whose brother coaches at Dayton and lost a regional final earlier in the day, had brought the Wildcats back to the kind of swagger they had in the Lute Olson era.
Finally, after the second huddle, the referees emerged, and made a quick signal that it would be Arizona ball.
“If it is going to be that long, we're not going to get the ball,” Ryan said. “We said OK, if it's their ball, here's what we are going to do.
“As soon as they called it, did you see how quickly they wanted to get the ball to the guy on the sideline? Our guys went right to their spots, did what they were supposed to do.”
Did Ryan have an opinion about whether the call was correct?
“I've been given a thousand hits of what people in the country saw. I guess they meant they thought it was our ball. I didn't say that.”
The Wildcats had 2.3 seconds to get it in and shoot it. They got the ball to their star, Nick Johnson, who swung around the top of the key and to the left and got off a clear, but difficult, fading jump shot. It bounced high off the glass and away — but, as it turned out, it would not have counted even if it had gone in. Johnson released it after the horn.
Like an Olympic 400-meter relay team, the Badgers sprinted toward their sideline. They were supposed to be a tad slower, a tad less talented, a tad less likely to come out of this regional.
The sprint to the sideline answered all that. They were going to Arlington, Texas, for the college basketball season's grand finale, a place only their truest believers thought they'd get to.
Forty-five minutes of basketball, under the brightest of lights with the stakes indescribably high, had come down to one officials' call (or guess) and 2.3 seconds of good defense and good luck.
These two teams could play each other 15 times and they'd go to nine overtimes to break the 7-7 tie.
It was that close.
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