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Rutgers coach classy about botched ending: ‘That’s just the way it is’

Mar 9, 2011, 6:26 PM EDT

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Yesterday, Gil Biruta picked up his fifth foul in overtime when he was called for a technical for swinging his elbows.

It was a tough call for Mike Rice to swallow, no doubt, but his response — “That’s a tough call. Big East referees are the best in the world. I’m going to trust that they were right. In overtime that’s an unbelievable call.” — was professional, classy, and what we like to call taking the high road.

What are the odds that on Wednesday, just 24 hours after the call against Biruta, Rutgers would once again would be on the wrong end of a tough call late in the game. Only this time, the officials didn’t get it right and St. John’s claimed a 65-63 win.

First, the video:

As you can see, with time still left on the clock, Justin Brownlee traveled with the basketball and stepped out of bounds before throwing the ball into the stands. The travel or the out of bounds call should have given Rutgers the ball with 1.6 seconds left on the clock.

Andy Katz spoke to the head of NCAA officiating, who told him that the officials decision not to referee the game until the final buzzer was “unacceptable“.

Rice agreed. Kind of.

“Was there a mistake? I saw it on YouTube. There was a mistake made,” Rice said. “I’m sure they’ll say it. But that’s just the way it is.”

“Circumstances … it is what it is. It’s not what happens, its how you respond to it.”

And while Rice went out of his way to commend the officials, repeatedly saying those are great officials and that the Big East has the best crews in the country, its clear that he was holding back.

“There’s going to be blood coming through my tongue,” Rice said.

That speaks to the character of Rice. He’s as intense and demanding as any coach in the country. With this being the second straight season his team was screwed in the postseason — if you remember, Robert Morris missed an enormous upset of Villanova due to some questionable refereeing — every one of the media members at the press conference (more than 100) expected a Bob Knight/Bobby Gonzalez level meltdown.

Instead, Rice was cracking jokes.

“I was a lunatic to be honest with you and I lost some self-control,” he said. “I admit it, and I thought it was a judgment call. Had I known it was 1.2, I might have literally held on, done a Van Gundy and held one of their legs on the court.”

“The judgment calls I have to believe that they are right,” he continued. “I watched him step out on our SID’s iPhone. He literally took three steps and — it was a mistake. The game should have been one more play, does that mean we’re going to win? Certainly not. It was a mistake and that’s what happens in basketball. I made a ton of mistakes in the last 48 hours in my life.”

This did not cost Rutgers the game. It cost them an opportunity to win the game on a prayer, but that is not the point — the referees failed to make a call, they failed to do their job, and it affected the outcome of the game. I was pissed. Everyone in my twitter feed was pissed. The folks on press row were in shock that no call was made.

But the head coach of the team at the wrong end of the call — the guy most affected by the ref’s ineptitude — came into the press conference and more or less said “whatever, everyone makes mistakes.”

I’m sure the sentiment will be different for whatever unlucky assistant heads out for “a few cold ones” with Rice tonight, but the point still stands.

It takes some serious restraint not to blast the officials that end your season too early. And Rice deserves to be commended for it.

For the Rutgers seniors, this is a difficult way to end their careers. Nothing was expected of this team, but they bought into what their new head coach was saying. They fought hard. They pulled off a couple of upsets. They won a game in the Big East tournament. And while their season and career comes to a disappointing close (they are under .500, so they are not eligible for a postseason tournament, according to Rice), this team is not exactly disappointed.

“I can’t even be mad at how the game ended because of how hard we fought,” James Beatty said.

Its a shame that the refereeing is what has taken center stage talking about this game, because it overshadows what was another terrific finish in the Big East Tournament.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.