MINNEAPOLIS — Just a few minutes after one of the wildest and most controversial Final Four endings ever, a national championship-winning coach was walking through a back hallway at U.S. Bank Stadium. He had no dog in the fight either way, so I had to ask him, “What did you think of The Call?”
He didn’t love it.
“The way that game was officiated?” he said, palms up, arms spread. “And with the game on the line, you call that?”
Among the abiding frustrations in college basketball is when officiating fluctuates during the course of the game. The more common endgame officiating adjustment is for the refs to swallow the whistle and allow mayhem — letting the players decide it, as they say. This time, The Call went the other way from the flow of the game.
Virginia 63, Auburn 62 was a Let Them Play battle for 39 minutes and 59 seconds. There was contact that went uncalled on drives, uncalled in the paint and uncalled on shots.
Until the last shot.
(There also was an uncalled double-dribble in the final seconds that aided Virginia. We’ll get to that.)
When Kyle Guy emerged from a thicket of players in the paint, cut to the corner and received an inbounds pass from running buddy Ty Jerome, Virginia was trailing by two and victory seemed a remote chance. When Guy rose for a 3-pointer just before the buzzer, Auburn’s Samir Doughty rushed to close out.
Doughty barely left the ground and had his arms pulled back, staying well below the top of Guy’s leap. (“He didn’t affect the shot,” said the championship coach.) But he did come into contact with Guy’s right side on the way down — and the savvy Virginia junior sold it with an awkward landing. Letting players land unimpeded after a jumper has been a point of emphasis the last couple years, and it became the biggest point of emphasis in the history of both Auburn and Virginia basketball.
NCAA national coordinator of officials J.D. Collins cited the foul as a verticality violation, citing a rule that says in part, “The defender may not ‘belly up’ or use the lower part of the body or arms to cause contact outside his vertical plane or inside the opponent’s vertical plane.”
For posterity, the most controversial Final Four foul in 30 years — since the John Clougherty whistle against Seton Hall that sent Rumeal Robinson to the line to win the 1989 national title — came from James Breeding. His whistle seemed to blow a tick late — enough that Virginia big man Mamadi Diakite said, “I thought we were going home.”
Then, right arm raised, Breeding walked up from the baseline to lead official Doug Sirmons and said four powerful words: “I have a foul.”
“It was a late call,” said Doughty, who was composed and accountable postgame. “I thought the game was over.
“I was super surprised. They hadn’t been calling those fouls all game. [There were] actually plays where there were fouls on 3-point shots and it wasn’t getting called at all. So for them to call that foul that last play was kind of surprising.”
Depending on your viewpoint, Doughty either joins Chris Webber and Fred Brown in Final Four infamy or Breeding joins John Clougherty in the annals of refs who made a borderline call that decided a Final Four game. Regardless, it was a huge buzzkill to see such a dramatic game come down to that.
While Auburn’s players reacted with shock and outrage, Guy walked confidently toward the foul line. The nerd with nerves of steel was ready to shoulder the load of winning, losing or tying the game.
His internal message to himself: “We live for these moments.”
The final seconds of Virginia’s latest, greatest escape were all about Guy, who scored six points in the last 7.4. With Virginia down 61-57, Guy hit a very tough 3 from the opposite corner. The Cavaliers then moved quickly to foul Auburn point guard Jared Harper, who had been 17 for 17 in the Tigers’ last three games.
Harper stepped to the line and made the first, then missed the second — an example of what NCAA tournament pressure can do. At the other end of the court in an absolute must-make situation, Guy never felt it.
When he took the ball for the first shot, Auburn guard Bryce Brown stood behind him and wrapped both his hands around his throat — willing Guy to choke.
The stroke was so pure that Brown was demoralized, walking away and bending over. He knew what was coming next.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl tried to ice Guy with a timeout.
“Everybody was saying that he was going to cash all three,” Virginia guard Kihei Clark said.
Guy was cash money. And for the second straight week, Virginia had taken a similarly improbable path to victory against Purdue in the South region final. In that game, as in this one, the Cavaliers benefitted from a missed late free throw — Ryan Cline for Purdue with 17 seconds remaining — that left them trailing by two.
But Virginia’s winning play last week took 5.9 seconds to happen. This time, the ‘Hoos were down to their final 1.5 when Jerome inbounded the ball.
“I thought, ‘This one, there’s no way,'” Clark said. “I’m just thankful we pulled it out.”
A big part of pulling it out was a Ty Jerome double-dribble that went uncalled. Down two, Jerome was dribbling up court when he went behind his back and bounced the ball off his right heel — then tracked down the ball and grabbed it with both hands, effectively picking up his dribble. But Jerome started dribbling again and there was no call until he was fouled with 5.4 seconds remaining.
“I know there was a disruption there,” said Pearl. “And, uh, you’ve just got to get on to the next play.”
Pearl was resolute in refusing to criticize any of the endgame officiating.
“This will be a memorable game,” he said. “And I’d like it to be remembered as a great game. I don’t want it to be on how it ended. It was a great college basketball game.
“There are lots of calls during a game, and some you’re not going to get. If that’s a foul, call it. Call it at the beginning of the game, call it in the middle of the game, call it at the end of the game.”
Guy’s heroics rendered moot yet another Virginia NCAA tournament collapse — this time blowing a 10-point lead with 5:22 to play. Auburn made some big shots to get back in it, but the Cavaliers did their part by going scoreless for a ghastly 5:07.
Virginia missed all five field-goal attempts and both foul shots it attempted in that stretch. For a star-crossed program that has found some incomprehensible ways to lose in the last five Big Dances, this looked like a stunning sixth.
Then Kyle Guy — with some help from The Call — changed everything.
“I do feel for Auburn,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett. “But I feel better for us right now.”
Now Virginia moves on to Monday, and Auburn is left to lament a last-second whistle which will live in infamy in the Loveliest Little Village on The Plains.
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