LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For more than a year, the Virginia Cavaliers endured the ridicule that comes with living on the business end of the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history. For more than 40 basketball minutes Saturday night, they endured one of the greatest individual performances in NCAA tournament history. To get the extra time they needed finally exorcise their demons, they had to make one of the most improbable plays in NCAA tournament history.
When the rollercoaster finally lurched to a stop, Virginia guard Kyle Guy sank to the floor. He hadn’t forgotten where he was on March 16, 2018. “I was definitely flashing back to when I was on my knees last year, and I did it again,” Guy said. “And I was just overflowing with joy.”
Of all the Cavaliers, Guy has taken the most public ownership of the 20-point loss to UMBC that broke the losing streak of No. 16 seeds since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985. (The year after Virginia had last made the Final Four.) Guy bristled at the idea that coach Tony Bennett’s Pack-Line defense and grinding offensive style had somehow made the Cavaliers more susceptible to such a loss. Guy remained convinced a team could win in the tournament playing the way Virginia plays. And as Bennett clutched scissors in his right hand Saturday night, the proof spun overhead as the coach twirled a net with his left hand. It took an 80–75 overtime win against Purdue that stretched the limits of the Pack-Line and stretched the boundaries of how well one man can play and still see his team lose, but the Cavaliers had earned a trip to the Final Four. They’ll face the winner of Sunday’s Auburn-Kentucky game on Saturday in Minneapolis.
“Being able to shut Coach’s critics up is awesome,” Guy said. “Being able to shut our critics up is awesome. They said we couldn’t win in March, and we’re doing it. They said that defense couldn’t win games, and it did.”
Then Guy paused.
“Well,” he said, “except for Carsen Edwards.”
Edwards, Purdue’s point guard from Atascocita, Texas, torched the Cavaliers for 42 points. The 6'1" junior built like an undersized strong safety made 10 of 19 three-pointers against a team that plays better three-point defense than almost anyone. He sank three-pointers over 5'9" freshman guard Kihei Clark. When that got too easy, he sank them over the 6'2" Guy. When Bennett switched 6'7" lockdown defender De’Andre Hunter onto Edwards, Edwards kept drilling shots. The Cavaliers finally slowed him a little when they told 6'10" center Jack Salt to hedge screens and help the guards with Edwards, but only to a point. On Saturday, Edwards topped the scoring outputs of Coppin State and William & Mary’s entire teams in games against Virginia this season. He came one point shy of what Clemson scored in an ACC game on Jan. 12 and seven points shy of what Oregon scoredin a Sweet 16 game on Thursday.
Virginia guard Ty Jerome on Edwards: “That was the best performance I’ve ever seen.”
Guy: “I’ve never witnessed anything like that.”
Bennett: “He made me rip my play card in half.”
That came after this shot…
“When he banked it,” Virginia assistant Jason Williford said, “it was like ‘Oh my God. It’s not our night.’”
But nights can turn. Virginia led by one late when Edwards drilled a three-pointer to give the Boilermakers a 69–67 lead with 1:10 remaining. Guy tried to grab the lead back with the three-pointer, but he missed. He thought he’d gotten his own rebound, but an official said he stepped out of bounds trying to tightrope the baseline. Purdue ball. Edwards missed the three-pointer that would have been the dagger, but Purdue’s Grady Eifert grabbed the rebound that seemed to seal the win for the Boilermakers. Suddenly Ryan Cline, the hero of Purdue’s Sweet 16 win against Tennessee, stood at the free throw line with 16.9 seconds remaining. He made the first. He missed the second.
Up three with Virginia still in the single bonus, Purdue coach Matt Painter told his team to foul and take its chances with a one-and-one free throw situation rather than let Guy (25 points) or Jerome (24 points) tie the score with one shot. So with 5.9 seconds remaining, Nojel Eastern fouled Jerome. He made the first free throw to cut Purdue’s lead to two.
He swears he wasn’t trying to miss the second.
“I short-armed it,” he said.
Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite, who gave up six inches to 7'3" Purdue center Matt Haarms, jumped up and swatted the rebound toward the other basket. The ball flew over the midcourt stripe. Finally, Virginia’s Clark chased it down at the top of the opposite key with three seconds remaining. He dribbled once and whipped a pass to Diakite, who floated a shot over Haarms that fell through the net as time expired.
“There’s no way we practice that,” Williford said. “It was just the luck of the bounce, Mamadi’s presence to tip it back and hopefully somebody was going to be there to get it. The basketball gods were with us tonight.”
That shot will run forever in this season’s “One Shining Moment” montage, as will the even shinier moment that came next.
Overtime would not end in such dramatic fashion. After Edwards and Hunter traded baskets, leaving Virginia up one, Edwards had a chance to shoot Purdue back into the lead with nine seconds remaining. But Guy grabbed his 10th rebound of the night and forced Purdue to foul. After Guy made both free throws, the Boilermakers would need their own miracle to force a second overtime. Virginia planned to foul Edwards, and he knew it. So he tried to fling it to Cline along the left sideline. But the pass sailed wide, and Cline couldn’t corral it. “I kind of let Cline go because I thought we were fouling,” Guy said. “So if that pass was completed, we might be in a different situation right now. Sometimes the ball bounces our way.”
And sometimes the ghosts evaporate as nets get cut, water bottles soak a locker room and peals of laughter ring out across cyberspace.