PITTSBURGH — Led by six in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon, Illinois guard Alfonso Plummer stole the ball from Houston’s Jamal Shead and passed it to teammate RJ Melendez.
Sprinting past the nearest defender, Melendez hit the easy two-handed slam to cut Houston’s lead to just four with 8 minutes and 40 seconds left in the second half of No. 4 Illinois’ game against the No. 5 Houston. The crowd roared against the bucket, coming to life as the Illini tried to come back against the stifling and defensive Cougars.
But as Melendez clung to the rim to slow his forward movement, a whistle sounded and the guard was assessed by official Brian O’Connell for hanging on to the rim too long.
Just when it looked like the Illini would gain some momentum, it was ripped off when Houston’s Jamal Shead hit the technical free throw to extend the lead to five.
“It’s deflating,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “You make a game that changes the momentum of the game and then have it called at that time? I can’t wait to see it [on replay].”
Illinois went a little closer in the ensuing possession thanks to a three-point play from big man Kofi Cockburn, but they weren’t able to overtake Houston’s lead, falling to the Cougars. No. 5 68-53 at PPG Paints Arena.
Illinois was outscored 22-11 after the technical foul against Melendez.
Underwood said that after the game the official told him the foul should not have been called, and the coach wondered if there was any personal motivation for calling the foul.
“[O’Connell] told me he should never have called her,” Underwood said. “Maybe it’s personal, I don’t know. To call it that, when a kid has a head of steam, 100 mph? We all talk about the health and safety of student-athletes. Go on.
“And then kill the moose like that?” Horrible.
Melendez said the official didn’t give him an explanation for the technique, and Melendez said he just waited to get his legs under him before he fell off the edge to avoid injury.
“I don’t know what the problem was with that,” the freshman from Puerto Rico said. “I was going full speed through that transition, so I was always thinking about Paul George’s injury, what happened landing on the mat, on the rim, so I’m just trying to hold on, to pick up some pace, get back on both feet.”
Per NCAA policy, a technical foul pool report was not allowed as no explanation is given for judgment calls on individual games.