Nerlens Noel played coy, smiling at a reporter who asked him about a potential game-changing play in the closing seconds of Kentucky's 75-70 victory over LSU.
LSU coach Johnny Jones pleaded his case with official Lee Cassell late in LSU's loss (Darrell Bird/TCP)
“What play?” the freshman forward offered.
Noel was nearly at the center of a potentially massive blunder that could have cost Kentucky the game and plunged a dagger into their NCAA Tournament resumé. Leading 71-70 with 3.9 seconds remaining the Cats exited took the floor for an inbounds at the far end of the court following a timeout looking to close the game out.
Just as game officials blew the whistle to begin play UK assistant coach John Robic realized their were six Cats on the floor and yanked Noel, who was standing just a few feet away, off the floor. UK inbounded to Kyle Wiltjer, who was fouled with 3.1 seconds left.
“He almost ended my career right there,” Noel joked of Robic's move. “I don't even remember. It was a little miscommunication, just got me off the court. I thought I was still in the game, but I got out before the ball was handed to anybody, so I was good.”
But did Noel get off the floor in time? From LSU's vantage point the Cats still had had six players on the court, which would have been a technical foul on UK and two free throws for the Tigers. LSU coach Johnny Jones got the attention of official Antinio Petty, who then conferred two separate times with fellow officials Lee Cassell and Forrest Sigler.
“That's what it looked like,” Jones said of UK having six players on the court. “I thought that's what was going on. I wasn't sure and we just wanted to ask the refs if there was any way possible (to review). I thought the back ref had an opportunity to see. They were trying to get off the floor at the time that I thought the ball was in play but it didn't happen.”
The game officials declined comment to a designated pool reporter after the game, but SEC coordinator of men’s basketball officials Gerald Boudreaux released a statement after the game citing the rule and that “the officiating crew ruled that when the ball was handed to the player for the throw-in, five players were on the court for each team”. The statement did not address whether the play was reviewable.
The strange sequence ended with Wiltjer hitting both free throws to put the Cats up 73-70 before Calipari opted to foul LSU's Anthony Hickey on the ensuing possession and send him to the free throw line in an effort to keep the Tigers from hitting a game-tying three-pointer.
Afterward, Calipari put the onus on his coaching staff for the near disaster.
“Normally what we do is – and it's not the kid's fault – we line up one, two, three, four, five: point guard, '2' guard, '3' man, four, five,” Calipari said. “On every timeout, that's how we line up. So if there are two 'fives', which one of us are in?
“I think we got sloppy in that timeout and I got my staff together after the game and said, 'You need to be responsible for that.' So that may have happened, but again, he was off the court.”
Despite the possibility of a game-deciding call going against his team, Jones was gracious in defeat.
“We'd had ample opportunities prior to that to make some plays,” Jones said. “I don't think that was the game changer there.”