View from the Bleachers: Beyond the buzzer beater

The Metress family simply can’t catch a break lately. Just when everyone thought all the hullabaloo over the Jan. 10 Annandale buzzer beater was over, it happened again. Except this time the victim wasn’t Lake Braddock coach Brian Metress — it was his brother, Darren “Dip” Metress, the head coach of the Georgia Regents University Augusta men’s basketball team.

Dip’s Division II squad found itself leading Georgia College on Monday night 55­-54 with 0.3 left on the clock. Just as his brother had done a week and a half earlier, Dip sent his boys onto the floor to defend an inbound pass that would decide the game’s outcome. Seemingly all they needed to do was protect the rim to prevent a tap­-in.

Sure enough, a Georgia College player got free off a screen, caught the lob near the rim and scored to give his team a dramatic 56­-55 victory. Dip Metress was irate, and he had every right to be. Video replay shows the player briefly gaining possession of the ball in the air before releasing it into the basket. And as the Metress family knows all too well, basketball rules dictate that a player can’t gain possession of the ball and get off a shot with 0.3 or less on the clock — it’s tap­-in or bust.

Chapter two of the Metress inbound debacle wasn’t fair, but it also wasn’t the same as the original sequence that played out on Annandale High’s home court earlier this month. The fate of Dip’s team hinged on a judgment call by the officials. The game­-winning shot was a close call, so close that it’s difficult to decipher whether the player gains possession unless you scrutinize it carefully in the replay clip. Right or wrong, the officials determined he had indeed executed a legal tap­-in.

What played out at Annandale needed no judgment call. Grant Gittens hit a hell of a shot to fell Lake Braddock, but the game was technically over before he even released it. A three­-point shot can hardly be confused with a tap­-in, even by the most visually impaired of referees. It was a blatant violation of a rule that has been in place for nearly 25 years, one that stretches across all levels of basketball.

That rule, outlined in Section 5­2­5 of the National Federation of High Schools rule book, is designed to take such a situation out of the referees’ hands altogether. It’s very difficult to judge whether a player can physically catch and shoot in less than a second, particularly when there’s no replay monitor to aid the referee. So basketball officials decided that any shot that occurred with 0.3 or less on the clock needed to be a tap; any type of set shot in that situation would simply be disregarded. Pretty clear-cut and simple to enforce.

What made the Annandale situation all the more egregious was the head referee’s apparent duplicity in the matter. Lake Braddock coaches called timeout before the final play specifically to confirm the rule with the officials. They reconfirmed it with the head official twice more, only to see the same official turn his back and count the three­-pointer.

The referees’ ensuing scamper for the dressing room constituted the second major violation. The Lake Braddock bench’s incredulity as the shot went up and its subsequent protests indicated a difference of opinion during and after the contest. By ignoring that difference of opinion, the referees were denying Lake Braddock its only recourse in trying to alter the game’s outcome, as results are set in stone once each referee leaves the floor.

We all know how Brian Metress feels about the situation. He’s still steamed, and he’s working with Lake Braddock administrators to search for a workaround in the face of the Virginia High School League’s refusal to address game protests. In the meantime, he’s got the Jan. 10 game marked as a 78­-77 Lake Braddock win on the school’s athletics website, official league standings and Washington Post entries be damned.

I talked to some other coaches around the area and learned that Metress wasn’t the only one who didn’t feel right about the situation.

“It’s a hollow victory; [Annandale] did not win the game,” longtime Herndon coach Gary Hall said. “The lessons that we teach are much more important than what the scoreboard says. I think that was a great opportunity and a great teachable moment to teach our kids a valuable lesson.”

Hall is right. Annandale coaches and administrators can’t do anything about changing the game’s result, but they could have at least admitted they effectively lost the game. The last time I checked, clinging to an unequivocal injustice that rewards one group at the expense of another is hardly the epitome of integrity, nor does it support the type of sportsmanship supposedly at the heart of high school sports. Annandale affiliates know they’re likely to keep that win regardless of any action that might be taken; they could have avoided acrimony with Lake Braddock and received kudos from peers around the region by simply admitting they lost the game. People respect honesty more than stubbornness.

More disconcerting than Annandale’s refusal to pay attention to Lake Braddock’s protest is the VHSL’s refusal to do so.

“The problem that I find troubling about this is that there is no system of oversight in place to correct an obvious wrong,” said Robinson coach Brian Nelson. “It’s not like this was a judgment call. … If the outcome was decided by the misapplication of the rule and there’s nothing that can be done, in my opinion that’s not right.”

The VHSL’s policy precluding it from game protests based on judgment calls is reasonable. Referees’ decisions on personal fouls and fumble recoveries and strike zones are always subject to human error. No one is advocating that the
VHSL place someone in the stands to oversee referees’ calls and overturn game results.

The problem lies in the VHSL’s failure to distinguish a judgment call from a rule intended to prevent a judgment call. Maybe the league doesn’t have the power to overturn this particular case, but it should at least use the incident to reconsider its role in governing high school athletics.

According to page 210 of its handbook, the VHSL operates under the philosophy that competition “is best conducted under the spirit and letter of the rules provided to govern each activity.” Forgoing those rules in favor of a whimsical referee reveals a foundational weakness that can’t be ignored.

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