Auburn was nearly there. Literally one second away from the national title game, after a remarkable 10-point comeback late in Saturday’s first Final Four showdown.
Then it made the most critical mistake of the 2019 NCAA tournament, fouling a 3-point shooter, sending Kyle Guy to the free throw line, and ultimately sending Virginia to the national championship game on Monday night.
With Auburn up two, 62-60, Samir Doughty fouled Guy in the left corner on an off-balance 3-point attempt. Guy cooly nailed all three free throws to win the game.
Virginia had not scored for over five minutes when U.S. Bank Stadium clocks ticked down under 10 seconds. A 14-0 Auburn run had turned a 10-point deficit into a four-point Tiger lead. The underdogs appeared to be on the verge of sealing a monumental comeback.
But Guy finally found nylon with a 3 from the right corner with 7.4 seconds left – Virginia’s first points since the 5:22 mark. It brought the Cavs within 1.
After a foul on the ensuing inbounds play, Jared Harper knocked down his first free throw, but missed the second, giving Virginia the ball down two. Auburn, intelligently, fouled – because it had two to give.
Then, in the final five seconds, the Final Four went off the rails. Ty Jerome, attempting to dribble behind his back, lost control of the ball. He frantically retreated to pick it up, then attempted to restart his dribble. According to CBS rules expert Gene Steratore, he should have been whistled for a double-dribble.
Instead, referees called a foul on Auburn – the Tiger’s second and final one to give. With 1.5 seconds remaining, Virginia had the ball on the sidelines. Tony Bennett drew up a play to get Guy a shot in the corner. Doughty did the one thing he absolutely, unequivocally, could not do.
And Virginia, somehow, pulled out the win as boos rained down from the stands in Minneapolis.
Auburn players, fans react to controversy
Boos weren’t the only thing flying from the stands. Bottles reportedly rained down as well.
Some bottles were just thrown at the refs as they sprinted off the court. Auburn assistant Steven Pearl stormed on to the court to get in a few choice words before that.
— Andrew Kahn (@AndrewKahn) April 7, 2019
Most Auburn players were simply stunned. Bryce Brown, though, was furious. “The NCAA need to get some new refs,” he repeated multiple times as he stomped back to the locker room:
The two calls, and particularly the final one – which was probably correct, but nonetheless controversial – will be discussed and debated for hours, days, and perhaps years to come.
Auburn misfires from 3 early, but grabs lead inside arc
Before the insanity, Saturday’s Final Four curtain-raiser was a tense but somewhat mundane affair.
As it had against North Carolina and Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, Auburn misfired from 3 early. It started 1-of-11, the only make from Brown.
But the Tigers finished the first half at over a point per possession after splashing two late 3s, in large part because they got to the rim against the vaunted Virginia defense. The Cavaliers had troubled preventing dribble penetration. Auburn shot 9-for-15 inside the arc over the first 20 minutes, and, despite its poor long-range accuracy, led 31-28 at halftime.
The first half was relatively uneventful. The second half promised more. At its onset, though, it was an offensive wasteland for Auburn. Coming out of an extended halftime break, the Tigers missed their first eight field goal attempts. They didn’t score for almost six minutes.
Virginia takes control early in second
The drought allowed Virginia to inch ahead. De’Andre Hunter wasn’t his usual active self in the first half. He was explosive early in the second, scoring Virginia’s first two buckets, and emphatically denying Brown at the rim:
Four points from Kihei Clark, two off a steal, pushed the Virginia run to 8-0. But it failed to take further advantage of Auburn’s inefficiency. Jared Harper hit a 3 to end the barren stretch. One possession later, after an Auburn steal and fast-break layup, the game was once again tied.
Virginia, though, kept plugging away. Hunter scored inside after snagging an offensive board in between two Tigers with one hand. He then finished acrobatically with his left to put the Cavaliers back up four.
Ty Jerome extended the lead to seven for the first time with a big 3-pointer inside nine minutes remaining. Another rainbow that rattled home with 5:22 remaining – off a beautiful set play drawn up by the Virginia coaching staff – made it 57-47 in favor of the Cavs.
It was the first double-digit lead for either team, and capped a 13-4 Virginia run that was largely fueled by defense. Harper hit a pull-up 3 that felt like it would get him going. But Clark and Virginia had Auburn’s stars locked down on the perimeter.
Brown, though, scored his first points of the second half on a 3 with just over four minutes remaining to cut the lead to six. He then hit another from the corner, off an Auburn offensive rebound, to slash Virginia’s advantage to three. And Danjel Purifoy whittled it down to one with a floater on the next possession.
Mamadi Diakite missed two free throws at the other end to give Auburn a chance to take the lead, and the Tigers jumped at that chance. Brown hit another 3, completing the comeback. Virginia kept running poor offense, completing its collapse.
But then the unthinkable happened. The wild final sequence undid it all. Virginia is moving on to play Michigan State or Texas Tech.