By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MINNEAPOLIS – Until Saturday night, the final seconds of regulation against Purdue in last weekend’s Elite Eight constituted perhaps the most unforgettable sequence in the history of University of Virginia men’s basketball. Who knew that was a mere prelude to more heart-stopping drama at the Final Four?
Junior guard Kyle Guy scored six points in the final 7.4 seconds Saturday – the final three coming on free throws with six-tenths of a second left – to send the Cavaliers to the NCAA championship game for the first time.
UVA 63, Auburn 62.
“I could lie to you and say I knew I was going to hit them, but I was terrified,” Guy said.
Maybe so, but he couldn’t have looked more composed at the line. Each free throw dropped through the net, and the Wahoos moved on. Virginia (34-3) will meet Texas Tech (31-6), which ousted Michigan State in the second semifinal, for the NCAA title Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“We found a way,” associate head coach Jason Williford said. “I don’t know what else to say. I’m at a loss for words.”
He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. For much of the second half, the ‘Hoos were in control of their first NCAA semifinal in 35 years, and junior guard Ty Jerome’s 3-pointer pushed their lead to 57-47 with 5:19 to play. But Virginia began to sputter at both ends of the court, and the Tigers (30-10) responded with 14 straight points, the last two in that run coming on free throws by Anfernee McLemore with 17.6 seconds to play.
As was the case last weekend in the South Region final against Purdue, UVA’s season was in peril. Again, the ‘Hoos pressed on.
With 7.4 seconds left, Guy’s contested 3-pointer from the right corner cut Auburn’s lead to 61-60. The Cavaliers then fouled guard Jared Harper, sending him to the line for a one-and-one. Harper made the front end but missed his second foul shot, and Jerome rebounded.
The Tigers had two fouls to give before Virginia began shooting the bonus, and they used the first with 5.4 seconds left. Auburn fouled again with 1.5 seconds remaining, after which UVA head coach Tony Bennett called a timeout to set up a last-second shot for Guy.
“It’s a play we put in and practiced it multiple times,” Jerome said. “It wasn’t just luck. We worked on that situation a lot.”
Inbounding the ball from the left sideline, Jerome passed to Guy in the left corner. Guy rose for a 3-point attempt that Auburn’s Samir Doughty contested. The shot missed, and the Tigers began to celebrate, only to realize that official James Breeding had called a foul on Doughty.
Breeding ruled that Doughty had moved into an airborne shooter, making contact with Guy while taking away his landing spot. The foul was a violation of Rule 4, Second 39.i., national coordinator of officiating J.D. Collins explained in a statement released after the game.
“This will be a memorable game, and I’d like it to be remembered for [being] a great game,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said when asked about the call. “Let’s not remember this game because of just how it ended.”
Guy, of course, still had to make the free throws, and the ‘Hoos were 3 for 9 from the line at that point.
“I was saying that to [assistant coach Orlando Vandross] on the bench, ‘We haven’t made our free throws tonight,’ ” Williford said. “But give Kyle credit. He stepped up and banged ’em.”
Redshirt junior Mamadi Diakite’s assessment? “He was cold-blooded.”
With the other four Cavaliers watching from near midcourt, Guy calmly made his first two foul shots. Pearl called a timeout before the third, but that didn’t faze Guy, who triggered jubilation among the UVA fans in the crowd of 72,711 with his 15th and final point.
“I just literally told myself that we dream of these moments, and to be able to make one happen was special,” Guy said.
Bennett said: “We struggled from the line, but for him in that setting to do it, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
And so another chapter was added to the remarkable story the Cavaliers have been writing all season. A year after falling to UMBC in the NCAA tournament’s first round, thus becoming the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed, UVA will play for a national title.
“It’s crazy,” said redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter, who scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half and also finished with five rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots. “Especially after a game like that coming down to the last moments, it’s a blessing to be in the championship.”
Jerome led the Cavaliers in points (21), rebounds (nine) and assists (six).
“I feel like I get asked this question every single round, every round we advance, and every round I say the same thing almost, and it feels a little bit sweeter, a little bit sweeter,” Jerome said. “But to think this time last year we were starting our spring workouts, and to still be playing at this point in the season with, after tonight, one other team in the whole country on the stage that you dreamed about since you were a little kid, it’s an unreal feeling. We’re going to do everything we can to finish the job.”
Two years ago, Florida blew out UVA in the NCAA tournament’s second. One year ago, UMBC humbled Virginia.
Guy and Jerome experienced both of those defeats, and “now to sit with them here brings great joy to my heart, it really does, because it’s good,” Bennett said at the postgame press conference Saturday night. “That’s all I can say, and I’m so thankful.”
Each of Virginia’s starters played at least 34 minutes against Auburn. The 6-9 Diakite scored only two points but had six rebounds and a career-best five blocks. Freshman point guard Kihei Clark contributed nine points, three assists, one steal and no turnovers.
“It’s crazy,” Clark said. “This is what we work for our whole life as kids growing up in the gym, working out. It’s truly a blessing.”
SOUND BITES: The crowd included such former UVA players as Roger Mason Jr., Justin Anderson, Ralph Sampson, Devon Hall and Evan Nolte. The alumni saw the Cavaliers extended their program record for wins in a season. Among the postgame comments from both sides:
* Guy to reporters in the Cavaliers’ locker room: “You guys are going to ask me a lot of questions, and I’m not going to have the perfect words. But this and getting engaged are easily the two best moments of my life, and I’m just so happy right now. I would say the third-best thing that ever happened to me was the UMBC loss, just because of the way I’ve grown in my faith and my basketball career and as a man.”
* Bennett: “I do feel for Auburn, but I feel better for us right now, and I’m just thankful these guys stepped up and played the way we needed to and got through. Survive and advance, I guess that’s taking on a new meaning.”
* Williford, who played at UVA in the 1990s, on reaching the NCAA title game: “This is for all those former guys, guys that I played with, guys that were before me, guys that we coached. This is unreal, and there’s a lot of happy folk. It’s Black Alumni Weekend back in Charlottesville. We’re excited. I know they’re excited for us. A lot of my friends are back for that. We’ve got a lot of [former] players here. I’m speechless. I’m happy to be a part of it. I bleed orange and blue, and I’m extremely excited about where we are. One more to go, though.”
* Jerome on picking up his fourth foul with 4:32 remaining: “I was just so frustrated with myself. I let my frustration get the best of me, and I picked up my fourth foul, just a bonehead play. It almost cost us the game. Luckily, we somehow came out on top, so I get another chance to play Monday. But to put myself on the bench and leave my teammates like that in crunch time is a terrible decision.”
* Diakite on playing on a raised floor in the Minnesota Vikings’ stadium: “It was very weird. Being up high, everything is down and when you turn your head, you only see your coach, you don’t see the rest of your team really well.”
* Hunter on the challenge Guy faced with six-tenths of a second left: “It’s tough, especially with the pressure, everything that was on the line at that moment. But Kyle’s a confident guy. I was confident in him. I know the team was confident in him, and he hit three big free throws.”
* Hunter on UVA’s poise under pressure: “Hopefully we won’t have to have a close game like that again on Monday, but if we do, we have experienced it, and I feel like we’re going to be ready.”
* Hunter on his second-half performance: “Ty talked to me, and he just told me to be aggressive. He just told me to do what I know how to do, and I tried to do that.”
* Bennett, a Wisconsin-Green Bay alumnus, on the victory: “Terrific. Sorry, that wasn’t a strong enough word. Amazing, spectacular … I don’t have many more. I didn’t graduate from UVA, so my vocab is a little limited.”
* Pearl on thel foul call on Doughty: “We didn’t focus on that. We focused on how we were going to handle the defeat at Auburn, with class and dignity. There are lots of calls during the game, and you’re going to get some, and some you’re not going to get … [But] don’t let it define the game, because then 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.”