Basketball tourney upset tainted by foul suspicions

March 04, 2001|By GREGORY KANE

NORTHWESTERN High School, 79, Dulaney High School, 50. That was the result of a state tourney basketball game played Monday. Anyone smell a rat?

Dulaney's basketball team is not that bad. They're ranked sixth in the Baltimore metropolitan area and were 21-2 going into the game. They had knocked off Annapolis High School in an away game when Annapolis was ranked No. 2. They beat Catholic League powers Spalding and Calvert Hall, and lost by only 11 to Towson Catholic, which was ranked No. 2 at the time.

Northwestern's team is not that good. They were unranked and had lost 11 games. They lost by more than 20 points to city powers Southern and Lake Clifton. So when a Dulaney team that hadn't lost by 29 points all season loses by that much to a team that got thrashed several times, folks naturally conclude it doesn't pass the smell test. What went wrong?

Several things, Dulaney fans feel. Dulaney had to play its first state championship playoff game of the season on the road, in the gym of an unranked Northwestern team. That, they claim, was bad enough. It was as if Dulaney was being penalized for having a great season and Northwestern rewarded for having a mediocre one.

Then, Dulaney fans claim, the officials took Dulaney's players out of the game early. By the end of the first quarter, nine fouls had been called against the Baltimore County school, one against the school from Baltimore City. Three of Dulaney's starters fouled out. Two others, with four fouls, played tentatively most of the game. Northwestern went to the foul line 34 times and made 15 shots. Dulaney went to the foul line 10 times.

The game had barely started, Dulaney coach Rod Norris said, when one of the officials came up to him and said, "I don't want to hear any of this. If I hear anything, you're gone." The official was responding to a comment. Problem was, Norris said, he didn't make it. A Dulaney fan seated behind the team's bench said it, and told the official so. Then, Norris said, the official cleared the bleachers behind the Dulaney bench. Several Dulaney fans who didn't want their names mentioned said they felt the episode intimidated Norris' players.

"I don't want to make it sound like I'm making excuses or shifting the blame," Norris said of Dulaney's loss. But when it comes to officiating Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association games between schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, Norris has the sneaking suspicion that "there's definitely some politics [and] there's definitely some agendas."

And it's more than about basketball, he says. He knows his squad had a fine season. They worked hard all year, and their season may have ended prematurely because of "adult agendas interfering with the hard work of kids." There's also the question of fairness: Did officials call the Dulaney-Northwestern game fairly?

Let's assume for the moment that Norris and Dulaney fans are hardly unbiased sources. But disinterested parties were at the game. Bill Nelson is the men's basketball coach at the Johns Hopkins University and attended the game to scout players. Nelson has been coaching since 1968, and has seen and coached hundreds of games.

"I walked in as a coach recruiting," Nelson said. "I really don't root for one team or another. I noticed right off an incredible inconsistency in calls at both ends of the court." Northwestern played a fine game, Nelson said, but he still felt something was amiss.

Jeff Gamber, the head coach at York College with 31 years' experience, was also on hand. "I've never seen anything like it in all my years of coaching," he said. "It was a very one-sided game. There were some incredible calls being made."

Bob Wade is the athletics director for Baltimore's public schools and a former basketball coach at Dunbar High School and the University of Maryland. He's seen and coached quite a few games himself, and was at the Northwestern-Dulaney game.

"I totally disagree with what they're claiming," Wade said of the critics. The officials, he said, are "two of the best" in the area.

"I thought Northwestern played a very good ball game," Wade continued. "They went inside, and when you go inside, you get the fouls. Northwestern was really peaking at the right time. They played a great game. They had Walbrook on the ropes and should have won that game."

Wade was referring to Northwestern's Wednesday game against Walbrook, the metropolitan area's ninth-ranked team, which trailed most of the game before pulling off a four-point victory in the final minute and 17 seconds.

Ned Sparks, the president of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, who was probably the target of much dudgeon from Dulaney fans last week, defended the playoff system that had Dulaney, the top seed in the 4A North region, playing an away game in the second round. But Sparks said the solution to game sites and referees might be for schools in each region to have all games past the first round played at one site.

"We like that idea," Sparks said. "The teams in the 3A North region have already gone with it. We've gone down for years to the Salisbury Civic Center to see the playoff games there. It's a great atmosphere."

The state basketball tournament should be a great atmosphere for all involved. Too bad Dulaney's players and fans didn't get to experience it.

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