Kyle Guy’s shot from the left corner clanged off the side of the rim and Auburn coach Bruce Pearl took a couple of steps toward the Virginia bench to accept congratulations from rival coach Tony Bennett.
The Auburn fans congregated in half of the bleachers on the opposite side of the building were screaming with joy, amazed that the resolve the underdog Tigers had shown to make this comeback from a 10-point deficit in the final 5½ minutes.
The Tigers did not shoot as well as Virginia, they did not have as much creativity in their offense as did Virginia, and they did not have the tremendous defensive concepts that Tony Bennett has used to turn the Cavaliers into an ACC power — as his father, Dick, did decades earlier with Wisconsin in the Big Ten.
Yet, what the Tigers had was a player in 6-7 Anfernee McLemore able to get higher quicker for a rebound that any college player you have seen this winter, and a backcourt of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown that wouldn’t be discouraged when shots wouldn’t fall, or drives to the basket that ran into the Virginia wall of 6-9 Mamadi Diakite and 6-7 De’Andre Hunter.
McLemore kept skying, and Brown finally made a pair of quick threes to ignite the comeback, and suddenly the Tigers had the lead.
And then they had the game, with Pearl on his way for the coaches’ handshake, and then he and his players and the Auburn horde in the stands became aware that a foul had been called.
Samir Doughty had moved into Guy’s space, and he was off-balance as he completed the shot. The call came from referee James Breeding.
The officials looked at a monitor to confirm Guy was behind the line, and he was, and then he made three free throws.
It was another miraculous escape for Virginia — 63-62 over Auburn, following the how-did-that-happen overtime victory over Purdue in last weekend’s region final.
The immediate reaction from a seat in an arena not made for optimum basketball viewing was Auburn had been robbed. Then, replay showed Breeding was correct; Doughty had fouled Guy.
Another replay showed Virginia’s Ty Jerome had double-dribbled with five seconds left after Auburn had missed a free throw to keep it at 62-60. Had Jerome’s faulty dribble been called, Auburn was a winner.
Asked about the double-dribble, Pearl said: “We were in a situation late where we had some fouls to give. I knew there was a disruption. You just have to go on to the next play.’’
There was another question about the last whistle, the call with less than a second left that detoured Auburn’s trip to Monday night’s championship game.
“It can’t define the game,’’ Pearl said. “Don’t let it define the game because you’re taking away from Ty Jerome, or you’re taking away from Anfernee McLemore with 12 rebounds, or Bryce Brown almost leading Auburn back to an incredible come-from-behind victory.
“I’d love that to be the story.’’
Classy as Pearl was with these comments, I’m doubtful that will be the reaction down on the Plains in Auburn, Ala.
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