The 1993 NCAA men’s basketball championship game was one of the most famous college hoops game ever. Why? Because the new guard — Michigan’s Fab Five, with their distinctive black shoes and Jordan-esque shaved heads and their unique combination of skill, athleticism and celebrity — were taking on the “old guard” — one of Dean Smith’s finest University of North Carolina (UNC) outfits, the epitome of skilled team-oriented basketball. It is remembered because it was decided in a way no one anticipated. It was unfortunately ended by Michigan star Chris Webber’s timeout, a timeout his team didn’t have.
The April 5, 1993, game in the Superdome in New Orleans was a tight, well-played nail-biter, just as you would have expected. “Believe me, of all the games I’ve done, that was not a hard one, because it was so well-played, and you could let them play through a lot of contact without blowing the whistle,” said Tom Harrington, one of the officials who worked the memorable contest. Ed Hightower and Jim Stupin were the other officials for the game.
Michigan was leading, 67-63, with 4:32 remaining. UNC then went on a 9-0 run, capped with a dunk by seven-footer Eric Montross with only 58 seconds to play, putting the Tar Heels up, 72-67.
Michigan’s Ray Jackson hit a jumper, slicing the lead to 72-69. And then Michigan called a timeout — its last timeout of the game.
After the break, UNC’s Brian Reese turned the ball over on the ensuing possession. Michigan’s Jalen Rose missed a shot, but Webber was there to get the rebound and score on the follow-up. It was 72-71 with 36 seconds left.
Michigan then fouled Pat Sullivan. He made the first free throw but missed the second, giving UNC a 73-71 cushion. With the Wolverines trailing by two, Webber skied for the rebound on the missed UNC free throw with 19 seconds remaining. His eager teammates — all of them — scooted upcourt, leaving him momentarily alone. Flustered, Webber briefly signaled for a timeout, but Stupin, the referee trailing the play, didn’t see it.
Hightower explained none of the referees expected a timeout call, because they had already informed Michigan that it was out of timeouts.
Next, Webber started to make a pass to Jalen Rose, who had come back to help, but a Tar Heel blocked the path, and Webber took a step and possibly slid his pivot foot before clumsily starting to dribble upcourt. The UNC bench saw what looked like a travel, though, and erupted in protest. Harrington was already under the Michigan basket downcourt.
“You think that he’s going to pass it, and he doesn’t,” Harrington said. “You see the bench leap up, and you say, ‘Oh, God, what did I miss?’”
“I was across the court,” said Hightower, a 12-time Final Four official who worked the 2008 NCAA men’s basketball championship game. “You don’t say it’s not your call, because the rule of thumb is, anyone who sees it calls it. But I was not looking at the situation as I was coming down the court in the center. But you never pass the buck.”
Bewilderment was rampant at that point. The six-foot-nine Webber dribbled the full length of the court and got trapped in the corner near his bench. He then called the timeout. Harrington blew his whistle and actually started to award the timeout, then quickly switched to signal a technical.
“Exactly right — I forgot (that Michigan had no timeouts),” he admits. “Because first of all, it’s not really up to us to know. If the officials are aware of (timeout status), they will tell the coach. But it’s the players’ responsibility to remember.”
Webber’s timeout request brought up a gray area in adjudication that has been addressed by more recent rules changes. His infraction gave UNC two free throws and the ball. Today UNC would only get the two shots; Michigan would then regain possession where the infraction occurred.
The rule in place in 1993 made officials somewhat hesitant to call the foul. “Especially if you’re talking about calling it on a coach in a crucial time, you might just bite on the whistle knowing that two shots plus possession could be the end of the game,” Harrington said.
But call it Harrington did.
“Everyone was in shock,” Hightower said. “Certainly we were, because for a moment it runs through your head, ‘Do I need to adjudicate this?’ But we came together and we had to adjudicate the rule. It’s one we actually had discussed throughout the season. We were not to ignore the excessive timeout anymore, but to recognize the timeout (attempt) and call the technical. You wouldn’t ignore a legitimate timeout, so you don’t ignore this either.”
Harrington, now retired and living in his hometown of Greenwich, Conn., says he can count on one hand the times in his career — before and after the edict to get strict — he actually called the infraction.
Hank Nichols, then-NCAA supervisor of officials for men’s basketball, paid his customary visit to the crew in its locker room after the game. Harrington recalls him referencing the possible missed calls in the final seconds (Webber’s first timeout request and traveling) saying, ‘You guys did a great job, but like always, sometimes you have to be lucky, because if UNC had lost that game, they’d be talking about us.’”
UNC hit both free throws after the technical, and two more a few seconds later after a desperation Wolverine foul, and suddenly UNC was up by six with only eight seconds left, sealing the Tar Heels’ victory, 77-71.
Multiple attempts to reach Stupin were unsuccessful, but Harrington described the role luck plays in an official’s career. “You have to understand that luck will play a part,” he said, “because you know guys who have had something happen to them and you think, ‘That could have happened to me.’ That’s just the nature of the beast, and you have to know it could happen.”
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