High School Sports

A shot that referees say should have been voided is sending Lumen Christi to the state basketball tournament

Videos and photos show the clock didn’t start when it was supposed to in the final half-second of last week’s Peninsula Conference championship game between the Lumen Christi and Ninilchik boys basketball teams.

The referees official report on the game agrees, saying “time should have started and it should have voided the shot.”

“The shot” is Brenden Gregory’s 3-point buzzer shot that lifted the Archangels past Ninilchik 72-71 in overtime on March 19 at Soldotna High School.

It was the kind of sensational, high-stakes miracle shot that makes basketball in March so thrilling.

It was also a shot that should not have counted, according to the referees’ final report on the game, which noted “the ball was almost in the basket before the clock even started.”

Yet the 72-71 Lumen Christi victory stands. A protest and an appeal by Ninilchik were denied by two different entities — the tournament’s Board of Control and the Region II executive committee. In each case, rules unrelated to clock operations settled the matter.

The game-winning shot came on a play that started with half a second on the clock and the Archangels in-bounding the ball from the opposite end of the court. Daniel Bennett threw a long pass that traveled nearly the full length of the court, deflected off teammate Tim Bennett to Gregory, who caught and shot the ball in nearly one motion.

The clock should have started as soon as Tim Bennett touched the ball, but it didn’t.

From the schools’ perspectives, the stakes could not have been higher. On the line was a spot in the Class 1A basketball tournament that begins Thursday in the Valley.

Class 1A is the classification for Alaska’s tiniest schools, and making the tournament is momentous at places like Ninilchik (a Kenai Peninsula school with 35 students in grades 9-12) and Lumen Christi (an Anchorage parochial school with about 50 high school students).

In a usual year, the Peninsula Conference would send its top two teams to state, but because of the pandemic the state tournament field was reduced from 16 teams to eight, and the Peninsula Conference was given one berth instead of two.

After much debate, Lumen Christi kept the championship and the tournament berth, and emotions remain high more than a week later.

“It’s just a bad situation,” Lumen Christi athletic director John Warren said. “It’s two really good teams and it’s horribly unfortunate that only one gets to go to state.”

He believes the right team advanced.

“The play occurred, Brenden made an incredible shot — the ball is thrown the length of the court and he puts it up and hits a 3-pointer — and the two officials at that end of the court could have called something or blown a whistle, and none of them did,” Warren said. “They signaled a 3-pointer, the scoreboard shows us winning by one, and they leave the court.

“A comment I’ve heard is, what we’re losing in all this is the fact you had an incredible catch, turn and launching of a shot that went through to win the game. It’s just unfortunate that’s kind of lost in this story.”

At Ninilchik, the Wolverines keep practicing with the slim prospect someone will drop out of the tournament and they will get to fill the vacancy.

Principal Jeff Ambrosier said he protested the outcome of the championship game because he thought it was the right thing to do.

“I have to fight for our boys,” he said. “If we had legitimately lost that game, I would never pursue a protest.”

He remains flabbergasted the referees didn’t huddle after Gregory’s buzzer shot to discuss things.

They met a couple of minutes earlier when Ninilchik thought it had secured a 71-69 victory by virtue of Jaylin Scott’s buzzer-beating layup. A Lumen Christi player called timeout as soon as the shot happened, and amid Ninilchik’s celebration, the referees met and ruled play should resume with 0.5 of a second on the clock.

“It blows my mind they would meet the one time but not after the next one,” Ambrosier said.

Ambrosier said Ninilchik ran out of protest and appeal options once the Region II executive committee denied their appeal.

“I have had several parents ask if I wanted to pursue legal counsel, and that’s not how I handle things. And coaches support me on that,” he said. “I’m all about doing what I feel is the right thing. I think if we went down that road, more people would remember the lawsuit than the issue.”

And the issue consists of one messy layer after another.

After Brenden Gregory made the 3-point basket that gave Lumen Christi the lead, the referees signaled that the game was over. They did not meet to discuss whether the shot came late or not. As soon as they left the court, the 72-71 score became official.

That was a critical fact the next day when the tournament’s Board of Control met to discuss the Ninilchik protest. By then, videos and photos had circulated widely, putting Lumen Christi’s final basket in dispute.

Also by then, the referees had reconsidered their decision. The Alaska School Activities Association was contacted, which told region officials that the tournament’s Board of Control had the authority to review and overturn the game.

Three people were appointed to the Board of Control prior to the tournament — Ambrosier, Warren and Birchwood Christian principal Robin Reich. Ambrosier and Warren had to recuse themselves, leaving the matter in Reich’s hands.

To her, the referees’ decision to call the game final the night before was paramount. Her ruling:

“Thank you all for meeting this morning. I appreciate the cordial dialogue and information shared. While I do agree a Lumen player touched the ball and there was a delay in starting the clock, the outcome of the game was settled last evening. Although the referees agree they made an error in the last second of the game, the error was made through no fault of any of the players. It is my decision that Lumen continues as the region champions and proceeds to represent our region at the state tournament in April.”

Then, something else came up.

It was discovered that Billy Hunt, one of three referees who worked the game, was certified nationally but not in Alaska.

Hunt is a former Lumen Christi coach and administrator who left Alaska nearly four years ago. He recently returned and, in a note to ASAA accompanying the referees’ final report, said he was welcomed as a tournament referee by various coaches and administrators in the region.

When Ninilchik heard Hunt wasn’t certified in Alaska, it consulted ASAA.

The rulebook says a noncertified referee can be used if the host school notifies the visiting school and no one objects, “and that had not been done,” ASAA executive director Billy Strickland said. “So the penalty is the host school forfeits the contest.”

But yet another complication arose.

Since it was a tournament game, the onus was on the tournament host to inform other schools that a noncertified referee was being used. The problem? It wasn’t clear who the tournament host was.

The tournament was originally set to be played at Lumen Christi, but those plans fell through when Anchorage announced new pandemic protocols that prohibited out-of-town teams from playing indoor sports in the city.

The tournament moved to Soldotna High, and no school was identified as the host school once that happened. Warren, the Lumen Christi athletic director, served as tournament director, but the Peninsula Conference handbook differentiates the two positions and the duties each is responsible for.

For ASAA to rule the game a forfeit, Lumen Christi would have to be ruled the tournament host. Ninilchik asked the Region II executive committee to decide if it was, and the committee of Jimmy Sickler of Su Valley, Collin Stone of Nenana and Les McCormich of Fort Yukon concluded it was not:

“While Lumen Christi is listed on the Region 2 website as the ‘host school’ this only reflected the original tournament site. Lumen Christi did NOT perform a large majority of the Peninsula Conference Tournament handbook requirements to be considered a ‘host school.’ Therefore, the Region 2 Board of Appeals cannot with 100% certainty say that Lumen Christi was the ‘host school’ once the tournament was moved to Soldotna High School.”

Ambrosier said faculty and staff at Ninilchik are telling players to stay positive.

“We need to keep our chin up. We did the right thing, you boys did the right thing, and be proud of where you are and what you’ve done,” he said.

He also said that during discussions through the week, there was talk about rewriting some of the Peninsula Conference’s bylaws. Among the rules he’d like to see added: one that allows video review.