With 1.5 seconds left, Ty Jerome inbounded the ball to Virginia teammate Kyle Guy for a three-pointer to win the game. The ball clanked off the rim. The buzzer sounded. Auburn fans roared. The U.S. Bank Stadium announcer called the game for the Tigers.
But on the court, Virginia players were clapping. Auburn’s players brought their hands to their heads in disbelief. Somewhere in all that chaos, a whistle.
Guy, the same player who struggled after No. 1 Virginia’s historic first-round loss last season to a No. 16 seed, stepped up to the line for three free throws, thanks to a controversial call on Auburn junior guard Samir Doughty. He made all three, and Virginia stunned the No. 5 seed Tigers to advance 63-62 to the national championship game Monday.
“I am a man of faith, so I believe that there’s a plan for me, but I don’t know what it is,” Guy said. “But … there was a feeling that, again, you can call it luck, you can call it religion, you can call it magic.
“This is March madness, and we’re just taking care of our business.”
That attitude of winning and not asking how has served the Cavaliers well this tournament, which started with a scare from another No. 16 seed and needed another buzzer-beater shot to force overtime with No. 3 Purdue in the Elite Eight.
More dramatics ensued Saturday, especially to end the second half. Virginia had built a 10-point lead with about five minutes left in the game. But Auburn thundered back, going on a 14-0 run on the back of senior guard Bryce Brown’s three-point shooting to take the lead in the final seconds.
In the final eight seconds, though, a series of unfortunate events conspired against Auburn. Junior guard Jared Harper, an 82.8 percent free-throw shooter, made his first free throw but missed his second for a 62-60 Tigers lead. With the seconds winding down, referees missed a double-dribble call on Jerome, a junior guard, that should have given the Tigers the ball. Jerome tried to dribble behind his back and deflected the ball off his leg; he then put both hands on the ball to pick it up and resumed dribbling.
“I knew there was a disruption there,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “You’ve just got to get on to the next play.”
Virginia took a timeout with 1.5 seconds left. The came Doughty’s foul, and Guy’s clutch free throws.
All of that left Virginia quite shellshocked. No champagne — no sparkling apple cider, rather — showers in the locker room. Just a lot of guys trying to puzzle out their own good luck.
“I can’t even fathom what’s going on right now,” Guy said. “Coach came in here. He doesn’t get hyped too often, but this tournament, he’s been getting hyped. He didn’t get hyped this time because I don’t think he knows what happened.”
Virginia junior forward Mamadi Diakite called this victory “a miracle.” Junior guard Braxton Key said the ending was “confusing.” He thought the referees would take back the call as an inadvertent whistle because he “didn’t see a Final Four game ending off three free throws,” he said.
According to a statement from the national coordinator of officiating, Doughty fouled Guy when he made contact with Guy in the air and took his landing spot. Pearl took the diplomatic approach, saying he hoped people remembered the game not for how it ended but for being a “great college basketball game.”
In general, it was. Jerome scored a game-high 21 points. Brown’s characteristic shooting brought Auburn back from the brink. There were only 13 turnovers between the two teams.
Yet boos still rained down after the actual final buzzer, when Auburn couldn’t make up the one-point difference with a desperation inbounds attempt with 0.6 seconds left.
Tigers fans, and those who cheered for the underdog’s 12-game winning streak and systematic takedown of the winningest programs in college basketball just to make its first Final Four, were left disappointed and disillusioned.
Virginia, though, will play in its first national championship, against either No. 2 Michigan State or No. 3 Texas Tech on Monday. And the particulars of the Cavaliers’ “survive and advance” don’t really matter.
“If we’re going to be the villains, we’ll be the villains for the time being,” Key said. “As long as it helps us win. Whatever cape we need to put on, be it superhero or supervillain, we’ll be.”