As has become traditional in the NCAA's national championship game, it came right down to the end of the fingernails last night in the Kingdome. The outcome was in suspense until they rolled the credits. Michigan didn't prevail over Seton Hall until three seconds remained in overtime, when Wolverines guard Rumeal Robinson finally figured out Seton Hall's defense and connected on two uncontestedshots.
He was handed the ball on both shots by referee John Clougherty, which was appropriate. It was Clougherty who had set up Robinson in the first place.Clougherty was the underneath official as the championship game hurtled to its conclusion. Michigan had the ball. Seton Hall had the lead, 79-78. Nine seconds remained as Robinson, the Wolverine's point guard, pushed the ball up the floor.
He looked to his left. He looked to his right. The vaunted Seton Hall defense was everywhere. Finally, he decided to dribble down the middle, see what was in there. He didn't find much of an opening so he passed off in the direction of Mark Hughes.
That's where Clougherty, an ACC official from Raleigh, N.C., entered in. Just before the pass, he saw contact between Robinson and Seton Hall guard Gerald Greene. After which he did a curious thing. He blew his whistle.
Now, normally at this stage of a game - particularly a game of such importance - a referee isn't about to blow his whistle and make a call unless he gets an engraved confession. In certain situations, sure, he has to make a call - if there's a collision on a shot, for example, or an outright mugging. But in the normal flow of things, if there isn't any blood, he's as apt to make a decision at this point in time as, say, his wife when she's trying on shoes.
This isn't because referees are supposed to be spineless; it's because it is one of the unwritten laws of sport that there are certain times a referee should keep his whistle shut off, and at the end of basketball games is one of them. He should be seen and not heard from. His call should not decide the game if he can possibly help it.
In this case, Clougherty's call did decide the game.
No sooner had he blown his whistle than Robinson, and the outcome, went to the line.
Robinson had an enormous amount of pressure on his shoulders. When Seton Hall called timeout it did not lessen the strain.
Luckily, for Robinson, he had been in just such a precarious situation before. Two months previous, in a Big 10 game at Madison, Wis., against the University of Wisconsin, he was fouled - while shooting - with seven seconds remaining and the Wolverines down by one. He missed both free throws, and Michigan lost the game.
For two weeks thereafter, Robinson reported to practice an hour early to shoot at least 100 extra free throws.
So he was ready when opportunity struck again. How was he to know the national title would be thrown in for good measure?
Still, Robinson was not a picture of confidence when he emerged from the Seton Hall-ordered timeout at :03 and stepped to the line. He looked like somebody playing Russian roulette, and it was now his turn. The jury was still out on whether this turn of events was a good deal or a bad deal for Robinson, and for Michigan.
Then his assist man, Clougherty, handed him the ball.
He looked at the rim. He did his best to block out the 39,187 people in the stands, and the 40 or 50 million watching on TV. He tried not to think about that night in Wisconsin; but, rather, tried to think about those thousands of free throws shot in the Michigan gym.
He put up his first offering.
He wheeled and jogged to midcourt, his arm slugging the air. This was a man with a load off his back. The game was now tied. He couldn't lose it. All he could do was win it.
Suddenly he loved John Clougherty.
The second shot was just as good. Michigan had its one-point win.
For Robinson, it was a storybook ending for a career, and a life, that has taken a sharp and decided turn for the better. He was born in Jamaica and separated from both of his parents for most of his childhood. He moved to Boston to live with his mother as a boy but was kicked out of a rather turbulent home when he was 12.
He lived by his wits for a while, before he was adopted. When he went to Michigan he had to sit out his first season as a Prop. 48, academically deficient, casualty.
All that, and now this.
Good things happen to people who persevere, and practice their free throws.
"I could have missed those shots that went in," he said. "Thank Goodness they went in for me and that we are national champions."
For its part, Seton Hall didn't dwell too long, or harshly, on the final game-deciding play. Guard Pookie Wigington did say, "Normally, especially in a prestigious game like this, a touch foul like that woudn't be called." But Coach P.J. Carlesimo said, "John Clougherty might be the best official in the country. I have no complaint with the officiating."
Greene said, "We both collided together. I really thought I had a good angle on the play and it could have gone either way."
Or neither way.
Asked if the tables had been turned, and he'd have made similar defensive contact against Greene, Robinson smiled and said, "Of course I woudn't have thought it was a foul."
"Honestly, it was kind of weak to call that one at that time," added Robinson. "That's when I think the referees take over the game. If I was the ref, I wouldn't have called that foul. When you have so much riding on a game, why call it?"
Clougherty was not available for comment. He had let his whistle do his talking.
But just as surely as Keith Smart's jump shot in 1986, and Lorenzo Charles' put-back in 1983, and Danny Manning's jump-hook in 1987, are destined to take their places in NCAA history as memorable title-deciding plays of the '80s, so, too, will the play in 1989 that John Clougherty blew.