MINNEAPOLIS — Naturally, a Final Four game that had breezed by over the course of two hours ended in slow motion, and was eventually distilled to its controversial final seconds that will be broken down for years after the fact. Each of Kyle Guy’s three cool-headed free throws—one to close the gap, one to tie it and, after a timeout, another for the 63–62 Virginia win—sprinkled salt in the wound for Auburn after a late foul on Samir Doughty pried a national championship trip from their hands. The Tigers’ furious 12–0 comeback that started with five minutes to play had been for naught, and the best way to describe the aftermath, on either side, was shock.
Consider to what degree controversy tends to accompany crucial no-calls in high-stakes games like this one, then multiply it by the temperature of Bruce Pearl’s furrowing red brow and you have the reaction when said critical foul was actually called. Guy, Virginia’s most dangerous player off the catch, had spun and received the ball in the left corner on a sideline out of bounds play with 1.5 seconds left. Doughty appeared to undercut him as he released his shot, which fell short. For a second, it felt like game over. The whistle, of course, put everything on hold. “I would just say that I think it was a tough call, but that's not where we lost the game, I don't think,” as Jared Harper said.
The sequence of events had been less a frenzy and more like watching train cars uncouple in slow motion. There was Virginia’s brief 10-point lead, punctuated by Ty Jerome (who finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and six assists), yes, sending it in. Then five minutes passed, and Jerome picked up his third and fourth fouls along the way, and with him on the bench or in the game, the Cavs still could not score, not until Guy drained an enormous three with seven seconds left to cut the Tigers’ lead to one. Harper split free throws at the other end, leaving Auburn up a precarious two points with seven seconds left. “We kind of thought we had it sealed,” Auburn senior Bryce Brown said.
Enter controversy No. 2 (although chronologically, it came first). As Jerome brought the ball upcourt, he wrapped it behind his back with his left hand, and his dribble trickled off of his right heel. He regained control, inarguably, with two hands, before being fouled. By definition, it was a double dribble that went uncalled. And while the instant replay gods got a hold of it, they do not levy the justice.
“That’s such a bang-bang play,” admitted Auburn assistant Steven Pearl. “How’s the referee supposed to see that he kicked the ball as opposed our guy touching it? So that's a tough one. It looked from our side like he kicked it and our guy didn't touch it, but it's one of those things you gotta deal with.” Nobody out of the Auburn camp fixated on the officiating postgame—not publicly, at least. Still, without the first thing there would have been no second thing, and perhaps the Tigers survive to see Monday.
“My advice, as an administrator of the game, is if that's a foul, call it,” head coach Bruce Pearl said, reflecting on the final sequence. “Call it at the beginning of the game, call it in the middle of the game, call it at the end of the game. Don't call it any more or less at any other time during the game. That was the call.
“But it won’t—it can’t define—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,” Pearl added. “I’d love that to be the story.”
It was one side of it.