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Reflecting on the game that Northwestern both won and lost

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Taking a step back to fully understand the chaos that went on in Welsh-Ryan Arena last night.

Joshua Hoffman

It’s game six of the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs. Just minutes to go, a big shot from Tony Parker and a backbreaking turnover from the Heat had the Spurs on the cusp of an NBA title, up 94-89 with just around 30 seconds left in the game. San Antonio had done it. They had beaten the Heat.

Except they hadn’t. Even though they had the ball and a two-possession advantage with less time than it takes for Microsoft Teams to load on the average laptop, the final whistle hadn’t blown, and an immaculate Ray Allen three sent the game to overtime, leading to Miami’s eventual victory.

That was the the most stark memory I had of a team losing a game that it felt like they already won. I say had because of what happened in Welsh-Ryan Arena on Friday night.

Northwestern won the game, until it hadn’t. The ‘Cats quite literally lost a game they had already won.

If you haven’t seen it by now, here’s the infamous sequence in which NU got a stop, followed by what seemed like to those inside WRA to be a game-winning bucket in transition by Laya Hartman.

But watch closely, and you’ll see the clock stop at the 3.9-second mark and hang there as Northwestern sprinted down the court.

Here’s the story as far as we can gather:

The clock operator heard a whistle at the 3.9-second mark, and, naturally, stopped the game clock.

The referees then huddled at the scorer’s table amidst the chaos and admitted that an inadvertent whistle had been blown. The officials then timed the sequence from when the whistle was blown to Hartman’s shot and decided that the shot would not have counted, and from there, ended regulation and advanced to overtime, as Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder relayed to the media during her postgame press conference.

Watch that clip again and it’s clear that Iowa is justified in saying that play shouldn’t have counted. Yes, time would have expired and yes, the clock had stopped, indicating that no live play was occurring.

However, that can’t explain what the officials then chose to do, basically saying “screw this” and just defaulting to five minutes of overtime. Take one quick look at the “Point of Interruptions” chart on the NCAA’s guidebook for women’s college basketball, and one of the first things you’ll see is that on an inadvertent whistle, the team in control of the ball (Northwestern, in this case) gets a sideline out of bounds from the spot the ball was at when the whistle was blown.

That did not happen. At all.

Sure, that’s an out-of-bounds play from beyond halfcourt with a mere 3.9 seconds remaining. There was not a high likelihood that the ‘Cats were going to scheme up a bucket on that play. But at the very least, you have to give them a chance. Yet instead, the officials just tried to wipe their hands clean of the situation, even though everyone in the arena could still see the marks on their hands.

So no, Northwestern wasn’t robbed of victory on Friday night. Not in any logical fashion, at least. Iowa is a really good team, and Caitlin Clark is, I begrudgingly admit, a bucket. Her and center Monika Czinano combined for a ludicrous 52 points and 27 rebounds in the 72-67 Hawkeye victory. NU had its chances, but couldn’t keep pace with the self-creation capabilities of their opponents.

But even if the refs didn’t take victory away from the Wildcats, what happened in the game ... still feels wrong.

Northwestern played well, generally speaking. Usually struggling to find any source of offense outside of Veronica Burton’s relentless rim pressure, Hartman and Melannie Daley stepped up to add 14 and 13 points, respectively. Courtney Shaw finished with five steals as she put on amazing display for how to properly front a post-up, with nearly all of Czinano’s buckets being the fault of a teammate rotating behind her rather than her own. And down four with just over a minute to go, the ‘Cats had seemingly pulled out some close-game magic with back-to-back stops against one of the nation’s most deadly offenses and pristine execution of their transition offense to get the baskets from Daley and Hartman that had seemingly won the game.

Northwestern was good enough on Friday night to deserve a win, only to see it slip out of its hands in an excruciatingly painful way.

That’s the cruel nature of sports. You can do everything right, but if you don’t get a +1 in the W column, there’s no differentiation between what you did and what a team that got shellacked by 40 points did. There is no Nash Equilibrium in basketball, no one wants to deviate from the “strategy” of winning, and there has to be a team that bares the burden of a loss, deserving or not.

But while Northwestern is now 11-8 and 3-5 in conference, there did remain a certain nobility in this defeat. Since their win Iowa City, the ‘Cats had lost four of five, three of which were convincing defeats, and one close loss against a Penn State team that still sits beneath them in the standings. NU needed to show that it’s still a dangerous team, the only Big Ten team to have notched a win over Iowa in the 2021-22 season, and in nearly pulling the same feat again on Friday, they proved just that.

“As much is it does sting, I think we all realize that we would much rather lose a game like this than a game where we’re not going as hard as we can,” said Burton, reflecting on the heartbreaking way in which the team fell. “I think we left it all out there on the floor, and if we play like that, we’ll beat a majority of the teams in the Big Ten.”

Whether the officials’ mind-boggling gaffe at the end of the regulation truly robbed Northwestern of a victory, we’ll never know.

What we do know is that Northwestern played a really good game against a really good opponent, and if that continues moving forward, then the officials won’t even have a chance to “take” a win that the ‘Cats have already earned.