It was what they call a "bang-bang" play.
Jacoby Carmichael, the heart and soul of these scrappy Sheboygan Wildcats, drove to the basket with twelve seconds left in regulation. The Northern Michigan State (NMSU) defenders collapsed in the paint leaving Sheboygan center Xavier Lannigan wide open under the basket.
Carmichael, with a little bit of that Milwaukee playground swagger, tossed a no-look pass to Lannigan, but the NMSU defender deflected it with a stray hand. The ball appeared to go off Lannigan’s thigh as it drifted out of bounds.
The ref closest to the action signaled that it went off Sheboygan, meaning NMSU would have the ball with around 10 seconds left, down by two.
And then things got messy.
See the Midwestern Conference has always been historically slow to change its rules of play. Most famous was the decision to keep a 50-second shot clock rather than the 30 seconds the rest of Division 1 college basketball had implemented. Likewise, the board of directors didn’t approve of instant replay until the 2016-17 season. And boy has it been a point of contention ever since.
“Basketball is meant to be played up and down, fast-paced, it’s a momentum sport,” Sheboygan head coach Wayne Arthur said. “These long pauses for instant replay really kill the game. Just make a decision, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. You can always do a make-up call later on. Our game was just fine for 100 years without instant replay.”
The two refs went over to the monitors for a second look. After a few minutes, both refs looked visibly stressed out, a ton of uncertainty on their faces.
After about five minutes, a man in a red baseball cap stood up a few rows behind the NMSU bench.
“Just make a call, I’ve got dinner plans!” he shouted.
The two hundred people in attendance all laughed then started clapping. One of the refs wiped his brow with the back of his hand.
Ten minutes went by. Then fifteen minutes. The crowd was starting to boo the officials. The small but mighty Sheboygan student section started to chant.
“YOU NEED GLASSES! (CLAP. CLAP. CLAPCLAPCLAP) YOU NEED GLASSES! (CLAP. CLAP. CLAPCLAPCLAP).”
The refs looked at each other, shook their heads. Too close to call. The taller of the two refs leaned over the scorer’s table, motioning for the microphone.
“Attention everyone,” the taller ref addressed the crowd. “Due to the extreme nature of this play, and in an effort to make sure we get this call right, I will be taking home the game tape and reviewing on my big screen TV. It is just too hard to make this decision when looking at a small black and white monitor. My TV at home has stunning 4k resolution, 1080p, 65 inches, and I will be able to make a more informed decision. We will finish the final 10 seconds at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning. Thank you for your patience.”
The two refs jogged off the court. The crowd didn’t fully grasp what hit them until the refs had made it safely to the locker room. There was a delayed chorus of boos. One fan threw his empty container of popcorn onto the court.
I had a chance to catch up with the man in the red baseball cap.
“It’s just ridiculous, now I’ve gotta look for a hotel room,” he said. “And to have the nerve to then brag about his television set, we’re like dude, we don’t care. You got a nice TV, good for you, now let’s play some basketball.”
Both coaches were visibly furious.
“Honestly, I was about to go over and just say give the ball to NMSU,” Sheboygan head coach Wayne Arthur said. “We’ll play defense. It’s not a big deal.”
NMSU head coach Landry Vinatieri took offense to Arthur’s remarks.
“He said that?” Vinatieri said. “Well, you can tell Coach Arthur that we don’t need his charity. You know what, let’s get the ref on the phone. They can have the ball, we don’t need it. We’ll see if his boys have learned how to shoot their free throws. You can quote me on that.”
The remark was a reference to last year’s semifinals when Vinatieri famously used a “Hack-an-Everyone” defense for the entire second half. NMSU was trailing by 22, but slowly chipped away at the lead by fouling every single possession. Sheboygan shot 2-of-21 from the line in those final twenty minutes. Seven NMSU players fouled out en route to a 51-49 comeback victory.
Coach Arthur said the idea to finish a game the next morning was beyond absurd.
“Talk about disrupting the flow of the game,” Coach Arthur said. “My guys haven’t played a game before 11 a.m. all season-long, and now they’re being asked to just turn it on at eight in the morning with a spot in the semifinals on the line? The biggest ten seconds of the season being played an hour after their alarm clock goes off? I’ve got seniors on this team. This is not remotely fair to them.”
Vinatieri, again, was less than sympathetic.
“I’m guessing he’ll blame their free-throw shooting on the early morning too,” Vinatieri said. “My guys have always had a mandatory 5:30 a.m. wake-up time, Monday-Saturday, so this will not be a problem. Look, you can write this down, the more disciplined team will win. Simple as that.”
Visiting fans ended up checking into the Holiday Inn Express near the arena. There wasn’t an issue finding rooms.
TUESDAY, MARCH 7TH. 8 A.M.
Both teams came back on the court around 7:30 a.m. for warmups. NMSU looked remarkably fresh, whereas the Sheboygan players were seen yawning as they went through layup lines.
The refs had a flair for the dramatic, didn’t announce who would have the ball until right at 8 a.m. The tall ref went over to the scorer’s table again, grabbed the microphone.
“After review, there was not enough on the tape to reverse the original call,” the tall ref said. “It will be NMSU ball, please put ten seconds on the clock.”
Jacoby Carmichael and Xavier Lannigan were the most visibly upset. Coach Arthur called them over, had his starting five huddle around him. I might have imagined this, but it looked like there was a mischievous grin on Coach Arthur’s face.
NMSU inbounded the ball. Point guard Lee Cota let the ball roll on the floor to keep the clock from starting. He picked it up around the free throw line and quickly dribbled past midcourt. Sheboygan was in a 3-2 zone. Cota passed the ball to James, James tried to get into the lane, kicked it back out to Cota.
Four seconds. Three seconds.
Two NMSU players sprinted out to Cota and both smacked him on the arm. The ref looked surprised to blow the whistle. Why foul when you’re up by two?
Coach Vinatieri looked over at Coach Arthur. This time the grin was there for sure.
Even more perplexing than fouling with a two-point lead was who they chose to put on the line. Cota is a ninety-four percent free throw shooter on the season, he set the NMSU all-time record earlier this year with 42 made free throws in a row.
Cota stepped to the line. Swished the first shot. Nothing but net. The ref bounced the ball back to Cota. The NMSU players didn’t even look ready to rebound. Coach Arthur chose not to call a timeout, wasn’t going to use the old “icing” trick.
The second free throw looked good but clanked off the back of the rim, rolled around then fell to the floor. Sheboygan’s Xavier Lannigan grabbed the rebound while the NMSU players quickly scrambled. Lannigan threw the ball down the court. Two seconds. One second. Game over. Sheboygan wins!
The NMSU players looked stunned as the Sheboygan players ran around the court. Vinatieri beelined straight to the locker room, skipping the post-game handshake.
“Karma baby, total karma,” Coach Arthur said. “Well, first off. Could you believe that call? Ref takes an entire night just to find out the original call was right all along? I’m like, come on man, trust your instincts, you were standing right by the play. But, anyways. So proud of my guys. They had to live with last year’s result all season long. Now the shoe’s on the other foot baby. I mean give NMSU credit, their players came prepared. I’ve never seen a group of college kids look that fresh before 9 a.m. Hard-fought. That was not a normal first-round game, that felt like the championship.”
I asked him why they fouled Cota.
“I knew the announcers would say something like, ‘Cota is a historically great free throw shooter, one of the best in the country,’ and I’m telling ya, every time they do that the shooter misses,” Coach Arthur said. “I didn’t even need to call the timeout, I knew the announcers would jinx him.”
Coach Vinatieri was not available for comment after the game.
As fans were filing out of the arena, Billy Arlington, owner of Billy’s Diner on 4th and Monroe went to the microphone at the scorer’s table.
“Hey everyone,” Billy said, addressing the crowd. “We’re gonna be doing half off pancakes today, so if anyone’s looking to grab a good breakfast, head on over to Billy’s Diner. Bring your ticket stub and get another 10 percent off. Or an extra side of bacon. Whatever works. Alright. See you soon.”
Sheboygan will play Lake Agnes Liberal Arts–I almost said tomorrow–but no they’ll play their semifinals game tonight at 8 p.m. Goes without saying this is the first time in Midwestern Conference history, maybe first time in Division 1 history, that a team will finish a game and start another in the same day.
Better get some pancakes.