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By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com
 

NORMAN, Okla. -- Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson and players Dionne Brown and Sophia Young came to a postgame news conference. And the Baylor locker room stayed open to the media for the standard half-hour after a 71-69 Sweet 16 loss to Tennessee.

The players and coaches have to talk, win or lose. They can't run away after a game.

The officials can -- and that's exactly what they do. We don't ask adults who earn six-figure salaries to have any public accountability ... but we require it from heartbroken 20-something kids.

We media folks here at Lloyd Noble Center watched the unbelievable ending to the Baylor-Tennessee game, then asked if a pool reporter would be allowed to speak to the officials about their decision to review the final seconds, put two-tenths of a second on the clock and put Tennessee's Tasha Butts on the line after calling a foul on Baylor's Jessika Stratton on a scramble for a ball in the air.

We ask ... but we already know the response. There are many levels of protection for officials. We request that a media coordinator ask the NCAA Division I committee members who are present if they will allow referee access.

Theoretically, the pool reporter would then share the information with the rest of the media. But the whole process is the very definition of "exercise in futility.''

We know what will happen: The committee members will say no. The referees do not have to talk. It's like trying to find out something from the North Korean dictatorship. No, no, no, no, no.

Hey, what do we need to know? What questions could we possibly have for the officials after this game?

The officials are supposed to be allowed to be questioned in two circumstances: if there is a fight or if "it is deemed in the best interest of the championship.''

Sun., March 28
There should not have been a foul called at the end of this game, and I can't believe the whistle was blown. This should have been a no-call situation. There was not a foul. Both players were going for the ball, and this is a game that should have gone into overtime. This is unfortunate for all the players. In a situation like this, you have to let them dictate the outcome of the game.
OK ... anybody who pays ANY attention to women's basketball -- and plenty of people who don't -- were watching Sunday night's game. And -- sorry, Tennessee fans -- but unless you have a closet full of orange clothes, you probably thought the ending to this game stunk like a dead skunk on a 100-degree day.

For that matter, I'm willing to bet even a few Tennessee faithful were uncomfortable with how this went down.

So wouldn't it have been in the "best interest of the championship'' to have the refs give their explanation for this?

Yes, I know refereeing is a very hard job. I've never done it and would be terrible at it. But you know what? There are a lot of hard jobs. And in most of them, if you do something controversial or questionable, you're called upon to explain it. Maybe you have a very good explanation. Or maybe you don't, and it makes you look harder at your work.

Refs can't be expected to explain calls every game, of course. But this was a monumental situation. Explain the call, explain the decision-making. That's all. In this circumstance, that's not too much to ask.

Instead, we got the most controversial ending to a women's NCAA Tournament game since the infamous "Time Stops in Tuscaloosa'' debaucle in the 1998 second round.

To refresh memories, that's when the time-keeper at Alabama had the slowest trigger finger of any human alive ... actually, a corpse would have reacted quicker ... there was eight-tenths of a second left on the clock when Alabama's Brittney Ezell inbounded the ball from the endline against UCLA. (She also ran along the baseline, even though in that situation it was illegal).

Anyway, the Crimson Tide played volleyball, tipping the ball at least twice before Latoya Caudle got it and hit the game-winner. All in eight-tenths of a second or ... maybe 2 or 3 or 4 seconds. Yeah, whatever.

Sunday's situation is another one of those tournament moments that no one will forget ... but not for good reasons.

Now, does this mean that Tennessee didn't "deserve'' to win or wouldn't have won without the call? Of course not.

Here's the thing about Tennessee: It's a team that almost always puts itself in position to take advantage of any breaks it gets. But Tennessee shouldn't have gotten this particular break.

Baylor made a turnover; Tennessee played good defense. Tennessee had two chances to put down the shot to win it. Both missed. Scramble time. Regulation over. See what you can do with an extra 5 minutes, kids.

"At first, I didn't know what was going on,'' Tennessee's Butts said.

Tasha Butts
Tennessee's Tasha Butts hit the winning free throws -- after the controversial call and after 0.2 seconds were put back on the clock.
"Obviously, there was a lot of pushing because both teams wanted the ball. I was expecting overtime, but it got called in our favor, and that's something we're pleased with.''

Suffice to say, Baylor wasn't pleased. But Mulkey-Robertson, Young and Brown stayed mostly restrained. Young even said, "I must give credit to Tennessee. They are a great team -- they made the plays when they needed to, they got the rebounds. We turned the ball over and didn't get that one rebound we needed.''

Baylor was at Texas Tech earlier this season when Stratton was whistled for stepping out of bounds ... except TV replays showed that she clearly did not.

That took the ball away from Baylor with just a few seconds left in a tied game. That was followed by a foul call on Baylor as Tech's Alesha Robertson was driving to the basket. She was sent to the line with 2.2 seconds left and won it for Tech by making one free throw.

Mulkey-Robertson was reprimanded by the Big 12 for complaining about those calls to the media after that game.

So she didn't blow her top Sunday. Then again, it was almost so surreal a situation that it transcended sheer anger and went into shocked disbelief.

"I cannot believe that game ended the way it did,'' she said. "That will be replayed from now through the end of the Final Four.''

Again, Tennessee might well have been in the regional final had that call not been made. Tennessee has been to 14 Final Fours and won six NCAA titles because it's a remarkable program led by a remarkable coach.

Tennessee finds ways to stay in games no matter what. The players change, but that relentless passion for rebounding and defense doesn't. Pat Summitt inspires that in players, and there are so many times that Tennessee has won games on sheer willpower, even when it's not playing great.

But it would be naive to not mention a widespread, longtime belief in the women's basketball world that Tennessee has gotten more than a few crucial calls over the years -- the kind that some think only go to Tennessee.

Is this just jealousy, because Tennessee has won so much? Is it frustration because of some at the "near-upsets'' that Tennessee has survived?

Suffice to say, Sunday didn't exactly dissuade anyone who already had that perception.

Yet, again, that doesn't mean that Tennessee would have lost without the call. Summitt, in fact, complained about the calls against Ashley Robinson, who fouled out with 6:41 left in the game.

Tennessee's defense helped force Young and Brown to shoot a combined 8-for-29 from the floor. Baylor had 15 turnovers. Tennessee got second-chance looks at critical times, even though Baylor won the overall rebounding battle 38-37.

But none of that changes the fact that this was a dreadful finish. It was a bad call and an inexcusable way for the officials to allow a great battle to end. Baylor -- and Tennessee -- deserved better. This game should have gone to overtime. And when it didn't, the referees should have had to explain why.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.



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