March Madness: As women's game grows, will officiating improve? 'We just want it to be at the level of game play'


In Las Vegas, Lauren Betts sustained a split lip. JuJu Watkins had a bump on her head. Cameron Brink went to the bench multiple times with blood on her jersey. And on the other side of the country, a contentious game between South Carolina and LSU escalated to a melee that resulted in six players being ejected.

March Madness is on the horizon, and after a season where officiating has often been questioned, the spotlight is on the sport‘s referees.

“If our game is going to grow at a certain rate, the officiating needs to grow at that same rate,” UCLA coach Cori Close said.

This isn’t the first time officiating in the women’s college game has come under fire.

After last season’s NCAA championship between LSU and Iowa, the NCAA conducted an official review and found that the accuracy of calls wasn’t what it should have been.

“In the championship game itself, for example, we typically have a performance that, I think, is 91% historically,” said Lynn Holzman, the NCAA Vice President for Women’s Basketball. “In that game, the percentage of correct calls was below that, around 88%.”

The findings were released in November of 2023, but in the eyes of many coaches, the officiating across the country has not improved.

In a Feb. 11 loss to Syracuse, Louisville’s Olivia Cochran was whistled for an intentional foul in a late-game situation. With 33 seconds left, Cochran grabbed Dyaisha Fair in an attempt to stop the clock and extend the game.

Following the contest, coach Jeff Walz expressed his anger at the call.

“It’s a god-awful call,” he said. “It’s absolutely terrible officiating; they should be embarrassed. Someone has to start holding the officials accountable. That call was the worst call I’ve seen in my 29 years of coaching.”

Walz was issued a $20,000 fine for his comments.

South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso vies for the ball with LSU forward Angel Reese during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Southeastern Conference women's tournament final Sunday, March 10, 2024, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso vies for the ball with LSU forward Angel Reese during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Southeastern Conference women's tournament final Sunday, March 10, 2024, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso vies for the ball with LSU forward Angel Reese during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Southeastern Conference women’s tournament final Sunday, March 10, 2024, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

One month later, after last weekend’s SEC championship game, LSU coach Kim Mulkey offered her own officiating criticism, stating that a series of missed calls contributed to the tension and eventual ejections.

“Do you realize there was only one foul called on each team with two minutes left in the fourth quarter?” Mulkey said. “Are you kidding me? That might have created some of that. Not the way we play. We’re going to foul your a**. They’re going to foul your a**. You only blew the whistle one time? Think about that now.”

In order to avoid poor officiating, Close thinks referees need to be held accountable for the calls they make and don’t make during games.

“I always think about this, that every game I have to come up here and I have to be accountable,” Close said from the podium following a Pac-12 semifinal game. “I’m the leader. I’m the head coach. And I really do wish there was a system in place where there was a little bit more accountability for that kind of thing as officiants as well.”

USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb had concerns about the game’s officiating as well, particularly when it came to Watkins. Gottlieb praised the freshman’s toughness against UCLA, but added that Watkins often doesn’t get calls because she doesn’t fall down, even though she is being fouled.

Gottlieb, who was an assistant for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers from 2019-2021 said that it would be hard for an official to answer to all the calls they made over a 40-minute game, but suggested that the NCAA implement a pool report for the last two minutes of play.

This practice, which takes place in the NBA, asks officials to clarify, “Officiated events that occurred in the last two minutes of games that were at or within three points during any point in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter (and overtime, where applicable). The plays assessed include all calls (whistles) and notable non-calls. Notable non-calls will generally be defined as material plays directly related to the outcome of a possession,” per the NBA’s official rules page.

“We just want the officiating to be at the level of game play,” Gottlieb said. “And I think they have a really hard job, and everyone’s got to battle through it.”



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