MINNEAPOLIS — There is winning while being outplayed. Next there is snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Then there are several other gradients of good fortune. And only then is there what Virginia did on Saturday night at the Final Four.
Its 63-62 victory stunned Auburn, which minutes before the end appeared to have the game sewn up, and sent the top-seeded Cavaliers to their first national championship game. They will play Texas Tech, which upset Michigan State on Saturday night, in the final on Monday night. But the way Virginia got there was something to behold.
[Read about Texas Tech’s upset of Michigan State here.]
Giving up a 10-point lead in the last five minutes by letting fifth-seeded Auburn score, eventually, 14 straight points, the Cavaliers then cut the Tigers’ lead to a single point when the junior Kyle Guy hit a 3-pointer with 7 seconds left.
Fouling immediately, Virginia put Auburn guard Jared Harper on the line, where he made his first free throw and missed his second. After a timeout, and a double-dribble violation that the referees missed, and another time-wasting foul by Auburn, Virginia got Guy a relatively open look in the left corner at the buzzer. Guy missed the shot. The game appeared to be over. Auburn had won.
But before Guy returned to the floor, a whistle! A foul. And sure enough, on the television replays, there was the Auburn junior Samir Doughty defending Guy, arms straight up but his body colliding with Guy’s as he released his shot. In other words, it was not the kind of foul that necessarily affected the shot’s trajectory. But it was a foul nonetheless.
Guy, an 81.8 percent free-throw shooter now presented with three free throws to give his team the lead, and almost certainly the victory, made the first two. Auburn called a timeout. The teams huddled, and then returned to the court. Guy made the third. There was 0.6 of a second left, not enough for Auburn to so much as get off a shot before the buzzer. Game over. Virginia wins.
“I think it was a tough call,” Harper said afterward, “but that’s not where we lost the game.”
“This will be a memorable game,” added Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl, “and I’d like it to be remembered for a great game. Let’s not remember this game because of just how it ended.”
Virginia (34-3), which is appearing in its first Final Four since the N.C.A.A. tournament expanded to a 64-team bracket in 1985, will play for the championship only one year after its team became the first and only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the history of the men’s tournament. The Cavaliers have carried that loss around all season; now they are a game from atoning for it in the best possible way.
“To think this time last year we were starting our spring workouts,” Virginia’s Ty Jerome said, “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.”
It is not an accident that Virginia won at a higher clip than any other team this year, even if it is infrequently pretty and never flashy, and even though, in its regional final against Purdue, Virginia’s win required an improbable buzzer-beating shot and overtime.
Guy’s late 3-point shot (the one he made) resulted from an elaborate play involving a series of screens. The even later 3-point shot (the one he missed while being fouled) came on an out-of-bounds play, in which the redshirt junior Mamadi Diakite was the first look inside for a lob — similar to the catch-and-shoot attempt with which he sent the Purdue game to overtime. When he was not open, the play turned into, as Diakite put it afterward, an informal play known as “Kyle Get Open.”
In their first Final Four, the Tigers (30-10) had acquitted themselves well. Coming out of halftime, Auburn led by 3. Virginia had been 28-0 when leading at the half this season, but only 5-3 when it trailed. Auburn was playing how it wanted to play, with guards Harper and Bryce Brown driving to the basket early in the shot clock and attempting to finish at the rim or kicking the ball out for a deep shot by a teammate.
But Auburn squandered that lead over the first five minutes of the second half, and it trailed by 10 when it called timeout with a little more than five minutes left after Jerome hit a jumper as the shot clock expired — the Platonic ideal of an offensive possession for Virginia’s deliberate offense — the sophomore De’Andre Hunter scored from the post and then Jerome hit his fourth 3-pointer of the game.
Hunter finished with 14 points, and Jerome led all scorers with 21 points, and added 6 assists and 9 rebounds. Diakite led all players with five blocks.
Auburn’s comeback was led by Brown, who hit his second, third and fourth 3-pointers of the game during the late surge. He finished with 12 points.
“We just figured we had to get stops,” Harper said. “We didn’t start the second half that well defensively. We let them do what they wanted. Being able to climb back in the game and get in that position was great for us.”
The production was overdue for Auburn, one of the country’s top 3-point-shooting teams, after it went 3 for 14 from beyond the arc in the first half against Virginia’s deep-shot-denying, pack-line defense. The Tigers finished 9 for 31 on 3-point attempts over all.
Virginia did not do itself any favors as its lead first dwindled and then disappeared. It turned the ball over on a shot-clock violation. It gave up two offensive rebounds. Hunter committed an offensive-goaltending violation. Diakite missed two free throws.
Trailing with less than 30 seconds left and not yet in the bonus, Virginia had to foul three times before Auburn finally went to the free-throw line, where Anfernee McLemore hit both free throws.
Then it was Guy’s 3-pointer, Harper’s free throw, then the shot in the corner, the foul, and the ending, unforgettable and devastating.