MINNEAPOLIS — If fate indeed owed one to Virginia, they are all square now. A stunning turn of events and a hotly debated call in the final second turned an almost sure defeat into a place in the national championship game.
Kyle Guy went to the foul line with six-tenths of a second remaining and made three free throws to give the once star-crossed Cavaliers a 63-62 win over Auburn, a result that had seemed all but impossible seconds earlier.
Guy was the beneficiary of a foul against Auburn’s Samir Doughty on a three-point shot from the corner. Replays showed it to be a debatable call, without a great degree of contact, leading to questions about how pronounced a foul has to be in that situation.
“I do feel bad for Auburn, but I feel better for us,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose team made history last year when it became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, UMBC. That result has stayed with the Cavaliers, marking their entire 2018-19 season — which now includes the Monday night final here at U.S. Bank Stadium.
How does this result feel in the context of last March?
“I feel like I get asked that question after every round we advance,” said Ty Jerome (21 points), who committed his fourth foul and prompted Bennett to take him out when the Cavaliers led by 10. “Every round, I say the same thing. It feels sweeter and sweeter.
“This time last year, we were starting our spring workouts. To still be playing at this point of the season, after tonight, in front of the whole country on the stage you dreamed of as a kid, it’s special.”
Auburn stormed back with the nerve it had shown in eliminating NCAA blue bloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. The Tigers led 61-57 with eight seconds left before Guy made it close with a three-pointer from the right corner. The Tigers’ Jared Harper hit one of two free throws with 7.4 seconds left, making the score 62-60 and setting up the drama that will remain part of March Madness lore.
“I didn’t think it was a foul. The refs thought otherwise,” said Auburn’s Bryce Brown, whose 12 points included successive three-pointers after Jerome’s departure that cut the 10-point deficit to three.
Harper, who scored 11 points, said: “I thought it was a tough call. It wasn’t why we lost the game, I don’t think.”
Said Doughty, “They do a great job at reffing and they’re trying to the best of their ability to make the right call. I can’t question any of that.”
Said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl: “There are lots of calls during the game, and you’re going to get some and some you’re not going to get . . . This will be a memorable game, and I’d like it to be remembered for a great game. Let’s not remember this game because of just how it ended.’’
Regardless of whether it was the proper call in a game that was largely free of whistles, there was no denying that Guy stepped up under pressure.
“I can’t lie to you and say I knew I was going to hit them. I was terrified, but I had confidence in myself,” said the guard, who found the loss to UMBC cathartic and caused him to go public with mental health issues. “This is what we dream of. For me to be able to do this for my team, I couldn’t be happier.
“Every basketball player has dreamed of making the game-winning shot or free throws or whatever. You kind of have that feeling in your stomach, that good nervousness, like this is my chance. To be able to go for the national championship off of that, for these guys and Coach Bennett, I really don’t have the words.”
Notes & quotes: Before the opening tap, there was a tribute to the late Jim O’Connell, longtime Associated Press college basketball writer from Long Island who died in July. His customary midcourt seat on press row was marked by his nameplate and was left empty.