In one way, it was a shame Unicoi County’s game against Sullivan South had to end with such a controversial finish.
In another way, it set the stage for what promises to be a very entertaining District 1-AA basketball tournament, which is less than two weeks away.
Sullivan South defeated the Blue Devils 55-54 on Friday night at the Rebels’ gym in one of the wildest endings of the season.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out about the finish is Christian Comsa’s heads-up play. The presence of mind shown by the Rebels’ Comsa proved coolness under fire — and a thinking-the-game-while-playing approach that not every kid can put together.
After Unicoi’s Lucas Hensley scored to give the Blue Devils a one-point lead with nine seconds left in the game, Comsa reached up to get the ball as it fell through the basket. He jumped backwards out of bounds, and did his best Peyton Manning impersonation by reading the defense in the blink of an eye.
Comsa found Mickey Winkle 20 feet behind the defense, and ripped a laser pass that hit Winkle in stride. Winkle scored to give South the lead, and the whole sequence was worthy of a victory.
It’s important to remember South’s players did what they needed to do. Rebels’ head coach Mark Pendleton was humble — not gloating — in victory. Those are the things that make high school athletics worth the price of admission.
But there is also an issue of fairness, and on this night Unicoi County probably got the short end of that stick.
Watching the sequence on film, a referee’s whistle clearly sounded before Winkle’s bucket. Just before Winkle started the process of the layup, Unicoi’s Nic Chambers reached for the basketball in an attempt to steal just as the whistle sounds. Because of the whistle, South’s basket should not have been allowed.
After the bucket, the official who blew his whistle can be seen on the film motioning toward the opposite end of the court, and also holding his hand out once toward a South player and then again toward the South bench. Another official comes over, and after the officials’ discussion the basket counted.
The Rebels should have been given possession of the ball in backcourt — trailing by one — with nine seconds left, or possession in frontcourt with about five seconds left. There’s no well-officiated scenario where South should have been awarded the points with only 2.7 seconds left on the clock.
The referees arbitrarily decided to remove two seconds from a clock that read 4.7 seconds. This trio of officials should be reprimanded — at least in some fashion — for that decision.
As Unicoi head coach John English pointed out after the game, the players and coaches put a lot of work and effort into these games. No game is going to be perfectly officiated, but this wasn’t a case of a difficult charge-block call. This was a situation where there was time to discuss what happened and come up with a decision that was in the best interest of fairness for both teams.
Whoever said two heads are better than one didn’t have this situation in mind.
Still, in the overall scheme of things South got a leg up in the chase for the top seed and a first-round bye for the district tournament. As important as the first-round bye can be — Unicoi knows a first-round district game can be a season-ender as the Blue Devils were upset by Happy Valley last year — the potential district semifinal matchup can be even more crucial. No. 1 plays No. 4 while No. 2 must battle No. 3 in the semifinals, if there are no upsets.
Unicoi County and Sullivan South have played three times this season. The Blue Devils won the first two contests. If they meet again in the postseason, another down-to-the-buzzer contest could be in store.
If that happens, hopefully after the game nobody will remember anything the officials do in the final seconds.