Controversial call raises questions about Virginia High School League

Grant Gittens’s buzzer beater last Friday night did more than lift Annandale to an unlikely double-overtime victory against Conference 7 rival Lake Braddock. Before his three­-point heave sent frenzied students pouring onto the court in celebration, the senior guard ignited an even greater uproar the moment he touched the ball.

The play still echoing through the halls of both schools began under Annandale’s basket with 0.2 of a second left to play in double overtime. His team leading 78­-77, Lake Braddock coach Brian Metress had just called timeout to confirm with the referee that the only shot Annandale could get off in time was a tip. According to Metress, the referee confirmed it, and Bruins assistant Cornell Felton reconfirmed it with the official two more times before the players got into position for the final play.

Metress, now in his 30th year coaching high school ball in Northern Virginia, had encountered this scenario before. It summoned a rule that took hold at the high school, college and professional levels when shot clocks were modified to include tenths of a second in the early 1990s. According to Section 5­2­5 of the National Federation of High Schools rule book, “When play is resumed with a throw­-in or free throw and three­-tenths (.3) of a second or less remains on the clock, the player may not gain control of the ball and try for a field goal. In this situation, only a tap could score.”

After reiterating that rule to his team, Metress sent his five tallest players onto the court, three of them standing at least 6­-feet­-6­-inches.

“I said, ‘Nobody leaves the lane,’” Metress recalled on Monday. “‘Don’t guard anybody on the three-point line, don’t guard anybody on a jump shot. Only guard the guys who they might throw a lob to.'”

On the other side, second­-year Annandale coach Matt Behne instructed two of his best leapers to prepare themselves for a lob into the paint. He sent another player onto the far wing and told Gittens to stand on the other wing near junior point guard Austin Hall, who would throw the inbound pass.

“You put guys in a position, you tell them what to do, but they’re high school kids, they’re teenagers,” Behne said Tuesday, confirming that he and his players were aware of the aforementioned rule. “It’s a pressure situation. They’re going to try to follow what you say, but you teach guys in basketball to be proactive instead of reactive because it’s all about seeing something and making a change. You have to do that on the fly as you play offense and defense.

“My guy saw five guys defending the one guy we wanted to get the ball to, and he made a decision.”

Without hesitation, Hall tossed the ball to Gittens, putting it on his dominant left hand so that he could quickly hoist a shot.

The moment he did that, Metress waived his arms and began walking toward mid-court to shake hands with Behne. He was surprised to see the ball ripple the net, but he was far more surprised to see the referee he had spoken to earlier signal that the basket was good before jogging toward the dressing room.

Metress knew that the outcome of the game could only be decided on the court in the moments after the final whistle. He remained on the floor waiting for an official to return, but the four men in stripes had packed it in for good.

“Every one of our players, fans and parents knew the rule. Everybody in the gym knew the rule,” Metress said. “I actually took a poll with my Latin students today. Eight of 25 Latin students knew the rule that you can’t score a jumper with under 0.3.”

The result was final, but Lake Braddock spent the ensuing days doing everything in its power to change it. Their failure to do so begged questions about the Virginia High School League’s stance on rectifying errors in judgement.

On Saturday morning Lake Braddock Director of Student Activities Mark Martino got on the phone with a senior member of the Cardinal Basketball Officials Association, which reviewed several still shots and video clips of the controversial play. The CBOA admitted its four officials at Friday’s game had made a mistake.

“I think it’s clear that the basket should not have been allowed to count,” a senior CBOA member said Tuesday. “[The officials] were absolutely aware of the rule. That’s part of the problem here is where the disconnect went. At what point did we forget that there was 0.2 left on the clock and that we could not have a catch­-and-­shoot situation?”

Though they admitted to the mistake, the CBOA could do nothing to alter the game’s outcome. Martino took the matter up with the VHSL on Monday, but their response was even more discouraging. The VHSL representative pointed to a longstanding rule in the organization’s handbook, which states in Section 32­1­1, “No protests will be considered which are based upon the real or alleged failure of contest officials to interpret or apply game or contest rules properly, or to render correct decisions in matters of judgement.”

The handbook goes on to say that an official’s final decision cannot be overturned by the league unless it is determined that the official “incorrectly permitted a contest to be suspended, a tie to be broken, or a tie to stand in contradiction to the game rules adopted by the league.” For instance, if instead of playing a four­-minute overtime period as required by rule, officials decided that the first team to score in the OT would be the winner, that would be a situation in which the league could intercede.

Joyce Sisson, the VHSL’s Assistant Director for Athletics in charge of the basketball officials program, expressed regret that the error was made but insisted her hands were tied.

“My response was that there really wasn’t anything the league could do about it,” said Sisson, who refereed high school basketball for 25 years. “Obviously it was an official’s error, but our handbook doesn’t allow for protests in that situation.”

Metress contends that the real issue at stake is not the official’s judgement error on the buzzer beater; rather, he believes the officials violated handbook rules when they neglected to resolve differences of opinion during the game. Metress points to the part of Section 32­1­1 that reads, “Differences of opinion which arise during the progress of the contest must be considered on the spot.”

Metress claims that his staff’s attempt to waive off Gittens’s shot as it was in the air constituted a difference of opinion during the game. In Metress’s view, the officials’ refusal to acknowledge that difference of opinion denied his team the only remedy sanctioned by the league for such situations.

Still, the VHSL stuck firmly with its initial position that nothing could be done. When asked whether VHSL officials might be open to re­-examining its policy, Sisson suggested it would be unlikely.

“You really just open yourself up to the proverbial Pandora’s box when you start looking at games and deciding that officials made a mistake and that the other team should have won,” Sisson said. “I think it just opens you up to all kinds of possibilities where you’re second­-guessing officials in a time that there’s a close contest or a controversial call. Our handbook is very specific about the things that you could change, and none of those things happened in this case.”

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