Referee Ed Hightower exits the court after his final NCAA college basketball game between Iowa and Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Iowa City Press-Citizen, Benjamin Roberts) NO SALES

Benjamin Roberts

After Sunday, Ed Hightower said he’s free to criticize the officiating in any basketball game he watches. And he might just do it.

“Why not? I’m a fan now,’’ Hightower said.

The 62-year-old official worked the final game of a long and distinguished career Sunday when he refereed the game between Iowa and Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Hightower has been doing college basketball games for 36 years and has worked in the Big Ten for the past 34 years.

Although he joked with former Iowa player Bob Hansen before the game and with Hawkeye head coach Fran McCaffery throughout the contest, Hightower said his final game was an emotional experience.

“Those are the friendships, those are the emotional ones, and I’m going to miss it greatly,’’ he said. “This game has been so good to me. It’s put me in a position to meet some of the great people of college basketball and to see some of the great players.’’

Hightower, who called himself “the luckiest guy in the world,’’ once had a chance to move up to the NBA but he wanted to stay in college basketball so he could continue his other career as an educator. His retirement from officiating will allow him to focus on his job as superintendent of the Edwardsville, Ill., school district in the suburbs of St. Louis.

McCaffery said the Big Ten is losing someone who commands a huge amount of respect.

“He’s one of those guys who has an incredible ability to manage the game in a way where he can communicate with the players and the coaches, and you always know you’re going to get a great shot,’’ the Iowa coach said.

“You’re going to get a great night from him. He’s going to give you everything he’s got and it’s going to be fair.’’