More on the USF-Pittsburgh finish ...
The end of Saturday night's USF-Pittsburgh women's basketball game was so bang-bang fast that when Bulls guard Shantia Grace hit a running, spinning layup off the glass with five seconds to play, all I had time to write down was "Grace 2, 0:05" before my attention returned to Pittsburgh's last-second shot at a win, much like Connecticut had pulled off against USF's men last month on the same court.
In real time, the ending play posed two questions: had Pitt's Shavonte Zellous gotten a shot off before the buzzer, and had USF's ChiChi Okpaleke fouled her? Pitt coach Agnus Berenato was adamant about two things: that Zellous "definitely got raked," and that the play should have been reviewed by officials, using TV replays. Okpaleke, ecstatic after playing a key role in a huge win in her final home game, was just as sure she hadn't fouled Zellous in the final second.
So I walked over to Catch 47's production truck, where the crew was kind enough to let me watch the final play from several different angles, forward and backward, again and again. Having done that, I can say two things with authority: contact was made in the final tenth of a second of the game, in the instant before the backboard lights red and the clock shows 0:00.0; and that the contact was made by Zellous and not USF's Okpaleke.
For a play taking place at full speed with the game on the line, Okpaleke showed what looked to be textbook defense. Zellous got the pass in the final second, and as she elevates to take a 3-pointer, Okpaleke jumps as well, but keeps her arms extended and straight up. Replays showed that Zellous cleared out with her left arm, making contact with Okpaleke, so much so that the ball was barely on her fingers when she pushed forward a shot with her right hand, the ball winding up going sidewards instead of toward the basket.
One official behind the play, Sue Blauch, raised one hand as if to call a foul, but the referee, Eric Brewton, simultaneously crossed his hands wide, like a baseball umpire calling a runner safe. He consulted with the other two officials for a few seconds, then pointed the clock, signaling the game over.
The Times requested a clarification from officials on the final play, and they issued a written response, which is much appreciated: "There was no foul called by officials near the expiration of time to end the game," they wrote. "Therefore, by Rule 2.13.5.a, the play is not reviewable. Article 5 states that the monitor may not be used to 'determine who committed a foul or whether a foul was committed.'"
There you have it. The finish was remarkable, but not so much so as USF rallying from an early 18-2 deficit. They had so many chances to tie or go ahead -- Okpaleke missed a tying free throw with 7:40 left, and USF missed two ensuing chances to take the lead. Down one with less than four minutes to play, Grace twice turned the ball over trying to get the ball inside to center Jessica Lawson, and Pitt went up 63-59 after hitting three free throws.
Lawson hit a bucket to pull within two, and with 1:33 left, she looked to get not only a tying basket but a foul for a go-ahead free throw. Instead, a charge was called, giving Pitt the ball with a two-point lead. The Panthers ran down the clock, then got an offensive rebound, putting the Bulls on defense for a run of 56 seconds. The shot missed, however, and tiny freshman guard Gianna Messina was fouled getting the rebound.
Messina had a huge game, playing 34 minutes with only two turnovers and scoring 13 points, most importantly her two free throws for the game's first tie since it was 2-2. Pitt missed a shot to go ahead, but center Marcedes Walker got the rebound and was fouled by Lawson. Walker hit the first but missed the second, and Okpaleke got the rebound.
The plan was to get the ball to Grace and have her go straight to the basket, but Lawson was out of position, going to the block and drawing a defender to the basket. Grace adjusted on the fly, spinning out and sending the ball off the glass and in, a huge shot that kept USF's hopes of making the Big East tournament alive.
I won't go into the tiebreaker details, but the Bulls fly out to Milwaukee this morning knowing that if they win at Marquette on Monday night -- no easy task -- and Villanova loses at Louisville -- very likely -- USF will sneak into the Big East tournament as the 12th and final team. Beating Pittsburgh put USF at 14-14, so a win Monday would assure them at least a .500 record, which could help them get a spot in the Women's NIT. Their season, like Saturday night's game, will go down to the wire, close as a final margin can be.