While his colleagues sat at a desk and prepared for the postgame show that was minutes away from starting, Charles Barkley stood transfixed while watching the end of the first NCAA men’s basketball semifinal at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday.
Auburn’s most famous basketball alum arrived had arrived in Minneapolis, after all, with a dual mission: Contribute to an entertaining CBS pre-game and halftime show … and enjoy the ride his team is on.
After Auburn erased a 10-point deficit with five minutes to play, Barkley watched in horror — along with Tigers fans everywhere — as Virginia’s Kyle Guy was awarded three free throws after contact was made on his three-point attempt in the corner with 0.6 seconds remaining. He made all three, giving Virginia a 63-62 victory over Auburn in an ending as dramatic as it was controversial.
Barkley stood stunned for at least 30 seconds, then sat down on the CBS sports set — located directly behind the Virginia student section — and presumably sorted through his emotions and what he would say on the air.
“Brother, I’m sorry,” Ernie Johnson said as the segment began. “I know how much it hurt.”
And guess what? Barkley agreed with the call.
“It might have been a good call. You can’t put yourself in that situation,” he said postgame. “The kid from Virginia, great courage to make all three of those free throws. But I think it was a foul. … My guys played as hard as they could. … It’s just a tough loss. It hurt. It really hurt.”
That earned him a tip of the cap from plenty of Cavaliers fans — even perhaps the Virginia student wearing a banana costume who I talked to pregame and insisted, without a hint of irony, that Barkley “doesn’t give Virginia any respect.”
It marked a dramatic and stunning end for Auburn fans who had waited in anticipation to see how their team would play Saturday in its first-ever NCAA men’s basketball Final Four — and how Barkley, their Hall of Fame super fan alum, would react.
“Seize this opportunity,’’ Barkley told Auburn players during a pregame pep talk Saturday before their national semifinal game vs. Virginia. “You ain’t got to do anything different. You all have played great to get here. Don’t take this thing for granted.”
The larger-than-life Barkley had a store in his honor at the Minneapolis Convention Center Fan Fest called the “Chuxedo Shop,” filled with some rather brightly colored suits.
But on Saturday, Barkley wore a tasteful light-colored suit. Lest you think he played things neutral on the air, though: Barkley had a stuffed tiger on the set in honor of Auburn, and he constantly referred to “us” and “we” when talking about the Tigers on the air — getting teased by Johnson for it while Kenny Smith joked that “he’s French!”
“I feel very good,” Barkley said at halftime, as fifth-seeded Auburn held a 31-28 lead over No. 1 seed Virginia. “We haven’t made any threes, and that’s a problem. … I would like to see us get into our offense a little sooner.”
As it turned out, Auburn did hit six threes in the second half to fuel their comeback. But the game was decided on a Virginia three-point attempt.
Barkley’s emotion was as real as any.
Said @jjordan28 on Twitter: “I’d pay money for a ‘Charles Barkley’ cam in the bottom of the screen watching his reactions to this game.”
Maybe by the end that would have been just a little too painful.
At least nobody will accuse Barkley of being a front-runner.
“The thing about Charles is he was cheering us on, supporting us, texting, calling, even in the years we weren’t very good, when I first got to Auburn,” Tigers coach Bruce Pearl said. “Like I don’t have more contact with Charles now than I did two or three years ago when we were struggling to just become a competitive program.”