A wild postgame brawl following a contentious game between Utah Valley and New Mexico State highlighted the risks when fans and players collide.
The Western Athletic Conference suspended New Mexico State junior guard K.C. Ross-Miller for two games and senior forward Renaldo Dixon for one for violating the league's sportsmanship policy following its review of the melee Thursday night in Orem, Utah.
Ross-Miller hurled the ball at Utah Valley's Holton Hunsaker seconds after the Wolverines' 66-61 victory over the Aggies. The ball hit Hunsaker — the son of Utah Valley coach Dick Hunsaker — in the leg. Some of the fans who stormed the court following the victory got caught up in the chaos and punches were thrown.
New Mexico State guard DK Eldridge was in the middle of the scrum before he was dragged away by Aggies coaches as order was restored. With the victory, the Wolverines claimed the top spot in the conference standings — their first year in the WAC.
While the brawl was touched off by Ross-Miller's actions, it sparked renewed debate about player and fan interactions, and the dangers posed when fans rush the court. It was one of several incidents involving fans and players or coaches in recent months.
Oklahoma State All-America guard Marcus Smart charged into the stands at Texas Tech on Feb. 8 and shoved a fan who called him a "piece of crap." Smart was suspended for three games and the fan later apologized.
Also in February, Oregon coach Dana Altman expressed concerns about safety after two of his staffers said an Arizona State student spit at them at halftime of a game in Tempe, Ariz. Ducks guard Jason Calliste had a verbal confrontation with at least one student late in the first half.
The NCAA does not have national rules regarding fans rushing the court because conference offices oversee regular season rules in basketball, including discipline.
The SEC does ban the practice, imposing a $5,000 fine on the school for the first offense, and as much as $50,000 for subsequent infractions.
Reggie Minton, deputy executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said his organization has discussed the issue in the past and it will be taken up again at meetings in April.
"The main concern is for the safety of the visiting players and coaching staff. Rushing the court almost always comes after a key victory or upset by the home team and there are people rushing the court who may or may not understand what sportsmanship is about," Minton said.
"We need to explore ways to eliminate the risk to the players, coaches and staff on the court," he added. "Every school should have a plan in place for end of game situations and make sure there is sufficient security and staff available to take control."
The WAC issued its suspensions Friday after reviewing the brawl.
"There obviously is no place in the Western Athletic Conference or intercollegiate athletics as a whole for the unfortunate events that took place at the conclusion of Thursday night's game," WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd said.
Hurd also said in a statement that there would be further review of the safety issues involved, and he has additional games management information from Utah Valley.
Hurd praised the coaches for both teams.
"The situation could have been much worse if it had not been for outstanding effort of both the New Mexico State and Utah Valley coaching staffs," Hurd said. "They were instrumental in separating their student-athletes from what could have been an even uglier situation."
Before the WAC weighed in on additional penalties, New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies suspended Ross-Miller indefinitely pending the WAC's decision. The junior starter averages 8.3 points, 2.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
"No matter what provoked K.C. what he did was inexcusable and hence the suspension. It is an honor and a privilege to wear an Aggie uniform and a responsibility comes with that privilege," Menzies said in a statement Friday.
The game between the WAC co-leaders at the UCCU center was attended by a season-high 4,954 fans.
Ross-Miller issued a statement apologizing for his actions.
"I have way more respect for the university, my teammates and coaches to retaliate in such a terrible way," he said. "I know better to let my opponents and emotions get the best of me and I regret doing what I did, not only because it was stupid and selfish, but because of the situation that I have created for my team, coaches and the university.
The Wolverines issued a brief statement via Twitter: "The incident following Thursday's game was an unfortunate and sour endnote to an otherwise brilliant performance by both teams." The team referred all further inquiries to the WAC.
Utah Valley (17-10, 11-3) is atop the WAC standings going into Saturday's home game against Texas Pan-American. New Mexico State (21-9, 10-4) visits Bakersfield on Saturday.