Whistle while you work
Final Four officiating crew works its way to the pinnacle
Ten hours before tip-off of the NCAA Women’s Final Four, the officials selected to work the semifinal games huddle in the boardroom of a downtown Indianapolis hotel. They are congratulated by Marilyn McNeil, chair of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, and incoming chair Greg Christopher. The officials have worked countless hours to get to this point, just like the administrators, coaches, committee and staff members, and student-athletes involved in the event.
After reviewing game and venue information, they get their assignments from Mary Struckhoff, NCAA coordinator of women’s basketball officiating. Felicia Grinter, Lisa Jones and Lisa Mattingly will work the first semifinal pitting Texas A&M vs. Stanford, with Mark Zentz serving as the standby official. Another crew will handle Connecticut vs. Notre Dame.
Since the officials are so recognizable, it is half-jokingly suggested that they should travel in packs for safety reasons during their stay.
“What do you call a pack of refs? A gaggle?” asks Mattingly, a Women’s Final Four mainstay with her 12th appearance.
“Trouble,” calls out another attendee.
For some, college basketball officiating is an occupation. For others, it’s an avocation. But the purpose is to provide student-athletes with the best possible competitive experience.
Few professions are subjected to such scrutiny. Officials rely on experience and training, and each other, to try to make every call the right one. Analysts, coaches, media members, student-athletes and fans all think they know better.
When discussing replay procedures, the officials joke that they should just poll the audience. (Plays are also shown on the Jumbotron.) Sixteen cameras will capture the action.
While officials try to keep the mood light, college basketball is serious business. They know what’s at stake and understand the pressures programs face.
“The thing is, they are harder on themselves than anyone else is,” Struckhoff says later, noting that outside variables such as coaching salaries and television replays magnify any mistakes. “The expectation of the profession is a little scary…They try never to make a mistake. We hope when they make a mistake it’s not at a pivotal time of the game. They’ve just got to do the best job they can.”
The officials must trust their partners, and themselves, to make instantaneous decisions under pressure. Good play-calling and proper mechanics are as important to the refs as to the players and coaches.
“It’s what we do to prepare…we’re always in the rule book, we study the game of basketball and are always talking about it,” Grinter says.
The three most important aspects of officiating? Communication, communication and communication.
“You got here not only because of your overall ability but your ability to create great chemistry within the crew,” Tina Krah, NCAA director of the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship, tells the group.
After the meeting, the officials enjoy some down time. A little shopping, a light workout, lunch and a nap, not necessarily in that order, are often parts of a pre-game routine. It’s a familiar one, as most full-time officials are on the road working about 80 games during the regular season.
The officials reconvene a little before 5 p.m. and head to Conseco Fieldhouse dressed up to take a picture on center court. Then they’ll head to the officials locker room tucked away in the bowels of Conseco and change into their work clothes in preparation for the 7:06 p.m. tip.
The locker room consists of a sofa and chairs situated around a dry-erase board and television mounted on the wall. There’s a separate dressing area. For an official needing to whet her whistle, an assortment of drinks and bananas, granola bars, oranges and pretzels are available. (While Mattingly jokes that she could eat a pizza before she goes out on the floor, others prefer a five-hour window.)
If this was an early-season matchup, the pregame conference would include a discussion of rules changes or interpretations. No need for such elementary preparation with an experienced crew that has worked together before, so the trio launches straight into team tendencies and coach and bench decorum.
As Grinter, Jones and Mattingly stretch out on the floor, Mattingly appears comfortable in her role as crew chief. She provides insights and game-management processes, and expects solid teamwork from the opening tip.
“You’ve all worked games this momentous, big and challenging and been on this stage, so I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know,” Mattingly says. “Do the same good job that has gotten you here this far. Don’t change anything.”
Grinter and Jones, who has hopped on the stationary bike, put on headphones as they get into the zone. Later, the public address announcer, scorekeeper, scoreboard and shot clock operators come in for a meet-and-greet that includes in-game management advice and a rules clarification. The clock starts an hour before tip.
When it’s time to work, security personnel escort the officials on the floor. Unlike the teams, their entrance doesn’t trigger applause. Fifteen minutes before the tip, the officials gather at the center of the court and talk to the team captains while television cameras capture the action. They line up for the national anthem then clear the floor for player introductions.
It’s important that officials are approachable yet professional, so they go over to the benches and greet the coaching staffs, led by Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and Texas A&M’s Gary Blair. Fraternization with coaches and media is discouraged.
With camera flashes popping, the teams gather at center court for the jump. In an instant, Mattingly tosses the ball and Jones “chops” or starts the clock as Grinter keeps a watchful eye on the eight other players around the center circle. Then for the next 40 minutes or more, the trio operates as one in a 94x50-foot space.
After a relatively slow start for both teams, Stanford leads 27-23 after 20 minutes of play. Texas A&M is more physical, and it shows in the 10-6 foul differential.
At halftime, refs make adjustments much like the coaching staffs. Back in the locker room, Grinter, Jones and Mattingly discuss situations from substitutions to players minimally stepping out of bounds on screens and taking steps without putting the ball down.
Mattingly exudes them to “go back out and re-establish the first four minutes.” They slap hands before heading back to the court.
The second half ends with the final horn signaling a 63-62 Texas A&M victory. In the end, 19 fouls are called on Texas A&M and 18 on Stanford, with no technical fouls.
The last nine seconds of the game provides a furious finish to the Aggies’ 10-point comeback after Stanford’s Nnemkadi Ogwumike scores on a layup to put the Cardinal up by one. Texas A&M answers with a layup by Tyra White with three seconds to play that proves to be the game-winner. The Aggies then intercept Stanford’s desperation pass to seal the win.
In the postgame press conference, Blair was asked if he hoped his player would have passed the ball or taken it to the basket.
“No, I wanted her to take it to the rack because they just got finished on the other end,” he said. “And I think the officials were going to let it go. They were going to let the kids win it.
“And I was jumping up and down thinking I should have had an and-one. Tara probably thought she needed an and-one down on the play on the other end. But we’re prejudiced, OK? You had three Final Four officials that have called a lot of Final Fours, and they were good officiating.”
The officials are back in the locker room dissecting their performances while waiting on a DVD on the game. Struckhoff enters the room, and they go over her notes.
Soon, the trio will slap hands and bump fists to encourage the second group of officials – Denise Brooks, Cameron Inouye and Sue Blauch – who are heading out for the Connecticut-Notre Dame game. They’ll begin to nosh on their postgame meals of wraps, chips, oranges and cookies.
But not before Mattingly agonizes over one particular call. With 52.9 seconds on the clock, Stanford’s Melanie Murphy collided with Texas A&M’s Sydney Colson going for a loose ball and was whistled for her fifth foul.
“I guess just being my last foul, obviously I didn’t want to leave the game, and it’s the last game of my career,” Murphy told reporters when asked about the call. “So I guess they called it how they called it. And fifth foul, you’re out of the game.”
After watching the replay and receiving positive feedback, Mattingly feels better about making the call.
“It was a grind; it was down and dirty and the Aggies hung tough,” proclaimed one television analyst.
The officials talk about calls for the lead, center (or “C”) and the trail. They analyze plays such as a good no-call, a late whistle, a traveling violation one ref missed that was caught by another. “I didn’t feel there was a play we didn’t have a whistle that we should have had a whistle on,” Grinter tells the crew.
Jones demonstrates in slow motion glide how one player glided into position.
“Could I have done anything to help that?” she asks Mattingly about another play.
In the end, Grinter, Jones and Mattingly are satisfied with their collective performance on the biggest stage of college hoops, but still striving for perfection. Says Mattingly: “We didn’t do anything to make the committee second-guess themselves on these assignments. I’ve been here a lot so I get to pick on myself.”
Each player receives a DVD to study, but now it’s time for some well-deserved down time.
Officials are only human, after all.