MINNEAPOLIS — The raised right hand of referee James Breeding turned into a fist as he blew the whistle with 0.6 seconds left to make one of the most controversial calls in Final Four history.
With Auburn clinging to a 62-60 lead with 1.6 seconds left, Tigers guard Samir Doughty heavily contested Virginia’s Kyle Guy — one of the most lethal perimeter shooters in the country. Doughty felt he did an adequate job of challenging Guy’s corner three-pointer with the game on the line.
But the Tigers’ upset bid turned into devastating loss in one moment as Breeding made a difficult late call. Guy buried all three subsequent free throws to lift No. 1 seed Virginia to a shocking 63-62 Final Four victory to advance to the national title game.
“That ain’t no foul,” Doughty thought to himself on the floor immediately after Breeding blew the whistle. Doughty’s in-the-moment feelings later evolved into conflicted thoughts as he sat red-eyed at his locker talking to reporters after one of the more gut-wrenching Final Four losses in recent memory.
“I definitely feel like we deserve a better result but it’s not always going to be like how it happened on that last play,” Doughty said.
“I was so surprised. They hadn’t been calling those fouls all game. There was actually plays where there were fouls on three-pointers and they weren’t getting called. So for them to call that foul that last play was kind of surprising.”
Auburn’s staff knew Virginia would take a corner three-pointer on the inbounds play. It was the easiest look for the Cavaliers to get with the inbounder positioned near mid-court. Austin Wiley, the Tigers’ 6-foot-11 center, was placed on Virginia inbounder Ty Jerome to attempt a deflection. Auburn planned to switch everything to keep a defender close to Guy after he had nailed a desperation corner three-pointer on the Cavaliers’ previous possession.
Knowing the play still didn’t matter.
Guy managed to get free, make a clean catch and turn before firing up the look that hit front rim and drew the foul on Doughty. Replays showed that Doughty impeded on Guy’s ability to land cleanly after the shot. But the shock of Breeding’s late call — which could have easily been a no-call — lingered throughout a U.S. Bank Stadium that was buzzing long after the game ended.
“There’s going to be controversy no matter what I felt. I felt like there was no way I was going to land. He was in my space,” Guy said of the play. “Auburn is going to think otherwise. I’ve been in their shoes before.”
Brutal losses are never easy to take. Auburn’s players and coaching staff did everything they could to credit Virginia for the win. Not all of the Tigers agreed with the late whistle, most notably senior guard Bryce Brown. The Auburn consensus still seemed to be that the game wasn’t won or lost on the final whistle. The Tigers played poorly for much of the second half before Brown’s late flurry of threes gave them the lead. Jared Harper also missed a critical free throw that would have given Auburn a three-point lead with under 10 seconds left.
It’s also impossible to tell Auburn not to think about anything other than the call that changed the outcome of their memorable NCAA tournament run. Breeding’s call will be remembered for years to come whenever a late call is made on a game-deciding shot.
“We kind of thought we had it sealed,” Brown said. “I mean, it just came down to that last possession. It’s not where we lost the game… But it was a significant part where I just didn’t agree with the call. Can’t say too much about that.”
Kyle Guy’s free throws push Virginia past Auburn and into title game
MINNEAPOLIS — The confusion hadn’t even been cleared by the time Kyle Guy began to compose himself. While the thousands at U.S. Bank Stadium and millions watching at home tried to make sense of the final 1.6 seconds, Guy was steeling himself for the most important free throws of his life. Maybe the most critical ever in the history of Virginia basketball.
The whistle blew after Guy’s potential game-winning 3 missed the mark, and while it was initially unclear if that was signaling the end of the game or that Auburn’s Samir Doughty had fouled Guy, the Cavaliers junior looked as though he was mourning a loss. Instead, he was preparing to take the fate of a program in his hands and shoulder the weight of history.
“I put my face into my jersey, but that was me focusing,” Guy said. “I just literally told myself that we dream of these moments, and to be able to make one happen was special.”
Guy stepped to the line and swished three-straight free-throws, delivering Virginia into Monday night’s national championship game with a 63-62 win over Auburn as the Cavs continue to survive the NCAA tournament a year after suffering one of its most notorious exits.
“Every round we advance, and every round I say the same thing almost, and it feels a little bit sweeter, a little bit sweeter,” junior Ty Jerome said after his 21-point, six-assist, nine-rebound performance. “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.”
Virginia has the opportunity to win its first national title thanks to a former Indiana Mr. Basketball coming through in a moment dripping with tension, crushing in its pressure and enormous in its stakes.
“He’s built for that moment,” Virginia assistant Brad Soderberg said. “He lives for that stuff.”
There’s no one else Virginia would have wanted in that moment rather than the 82.5 percent free-throw shooter who was spent his three years in Charlottesville with a sense of confidence and self-assurance that radiates from him. He lives to define the moment rather than be controlled by it.
There, though, with 0.6 on the clock and his team down by two, Guy had three shots to chart the course of history. A year after 16th-seeded UMBC had shattered their season, Virginia now had blown a late 10-point lead to a five-seed with a national title game spot on the line.
Guy had three tosses to save Virginia.
“I was trying to look at my fiance. I couldn’t find her so I looked at my dad,” Guy said. “I got this. I looked at my future brother-in-law, he started smiling. I just smirked at him. I got this.”
That smirk gave way to two swishes. Tie game.
Then Auburn used a timeout, forcing Guy to contemplate the game-winner that lay before him on the other side of a huddle he ignored.
“I didn’t hear one word anybody said. I didn’t want any part of what they were talking about,” Guy said. “I just wanted to focus. I don’t even know what the plan was if I made it.”
His teammates saw Guy drifting from them, and kept their distance, secure in what his process would yield.
“Try to stay away from Kyle. Let him get his space, get in his own head. Don’t try to hype him up or anything,” Braxton Key said.
With the isolation of the free-throw line looming, Virginia left Guy alone.
“You don’t need to talk to someone like that in that moment,” De’Andre Hunter said. “He knows it’s a lot of pressure. You don’t need to add any more to it.”
With the biggest shot of his life forthcoming, Virginia offered no advice.
“He knew what he needed to do,” Jack Salt said. “He didn’t need me to tell him how to shoot free throws.”
There was nothing to say because Virginia knew what Guy knew.
“I wasn’t settling for two,” he said.
So guy walked back to the line, took a dribble, bent his knees and let the ball loose into history.
“He was cold-blooded for that,” Mamadi Diakite said.
A dream delivered.
“To be able to go to the national championship off of that for these guys and coach (Tony) Bennett, I mean, I really don’t have the words,” Guy said. “We all practiced those shots as a kid. They were probably a little bit more spectacular than free throws, but whatever it takes to win.”
After Auburn could find no miracle in that last 0.6, made his way off the the floor and into history, taking a moment as he ran to put his hand to his mouth and blow a kiss toward the crowd. No doubt it hit its mark.
Undersized and underrecruited, Jared Harper a perfect catalyst for underdog Auburn
MINNEAPOLIS — There wasn’t a lot of hype when Jared Harper committed to Auburn in the spring of 2015.
An undersized, three-star prospect from the Atlanta area, Harper led the Nike EYBL in made three-pointers during the spring of 2014. A great sophomore high school season saw Harper lead Pebblebrook to the Georgia state title game as he averaged 21 points and seven assists per game. None of that mattered to high-major programs who were skittish to offer a 5-foot-9 guard with questionable strength.
“I was recruited by some schools and some schools didn’t wanna offer at that time, just because of my size. They didn’t know if I could play at the high Division I level,” Harper said.
Harper’s lack of size didn’t stop Auburn’s coaching staff from going all-in on him early. Assistant coach Tony Jones was the first to see Harper play. Over the next several months, Bruce Pearl’s entire staff began to fall in love with the skills, IQ and confidence Harper brought to the table.
A night after Auburn completed a surprising SEC Tournament run to end the 2014-15 season, Harper pledged to the Tigers. His only other offers at the time were from Kansas State, Ole Miss, UAB and South Alabama.
“BP believed in me from day one,” Harper said. “I just feel like when I stepped on Auburn’s campus for the first time that I could see myself there. It’s a great environment, it’s close to home and my family could come and see all of my games. And being able to play as a freshman was big for me.”
Harper’s commitment, the first Auburn pledge for the Class of 2016, ushered in a new era of Tigers basketball. By committing early, Auburn’s staff could focus on finding pieces to complement their new lead guard while Harper could ignore recruiting and focus on getting better.
By the end of summer 2015, Auburn’s early evaluation was already paying off. Harper elevated into a top-75 national prospect by helping a loaded Georgia Stars team win the Nike EYBL title at Peach Jam. Harper was named co-MVP of the event with Wendell Carter as his blistering shooting was the talk of North Augusta. Even though the Stars featured a loaded roster that had Carter (Duke), Udoka Azubuike (Kansas), Brandon Robinson (North Carolina) and Trent Forrest (Florida State), Harper often looked like the best player on the floor.
“There’s [a couple things] about Jared that made him who he is. He has an incredible belief in himself. A lot of guys doubted him because he’s so little. The confidence is never an issue with him,” former Auburn assistant coach Todd Golden, who helped recruit Harper, said. “And he sees the game like a coach does. He’s been that way since he was young. His father, Pat, put a ball in his hands when he was young. Jared has played a ton of basketball, so when it comes to handling certain situations, he’s already been through it.”
Other players also noticed Harper’s abilities as he turned into a recruiter — helping Auburn land two five-star prospects (Mustapha Heron and Austin Wiley) and a quality role player (Anfernee McLemore). Once Harper finally landed on campus, his gym-rat mentality was immediately noticed around the Auburn program. Harper and fellow starting guard Bryce Brown made a habit of living in the gym. Other players followed suit. Harper and Brown’s fathers were also constantly present around the Auburn program, shooting with their sons and talking ball with the coaching staff. A unique father-son dynamic around the Tigers fostered a family-oriented team that never listened to doubters.
“They started that culture of guys being in the gym late at night. They started that culture of guys coming in early in the morning. And now it’s a competition on who can spend the most time in the gym,” Auburn assistant Steven Pearl said. “It’s almost to a fault. We have to tell our guys, ‘get your ass out of the gym, you’re going to be exhausted!’ The guys challenge each other and come in together and it’s just become a great environment with Auburn basketball. We have some of the hardest-working kids in the country.”
Harper’s underdog mentality has fit in naturally with a team making its first-ever Final Four appearance this weekend. A double-figure scorer in all three seasons with the Tigers, Harper is a perfect catalyst for the Tigers with his ability to score and distribute. Auburn will be an underdog when they face No. 1 seed Virginia on Saturday, but they’ve already mowed through blue bloods like Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky the past three rounds. Facing another title hopeful won’t bother a team that has relished the underdog role the past few seasons.
“I feel like we’ve been in the underdog role a lot, I’ve been in the underdog role my entire life,” Harper said. “We’re taking it as it comes, we know what we can do. We know that at the end of the day, it matters what we believe in and what we feel like we can do.”
The 2019 Final Four is set for next weekend in Minneapolis as the second weekend of the NCAA tournament was a memorable one.
After four memorable Elite Eight games, No. 1 seed Virginia will face No. 5 seed Auburn in one national semifinal with No. 2 seed Michigan State battling No. 3 seed Texas Tech in the other Final Four game on Saturday.
Virginia’s win will go down as one of the better Elite Eight games of the decade as Edwards became a March hero while the Cavaliers finally overcame some NCAA tournament demons.
Also winning an overtime game in the Midwest Region was No. 5 seed Auburn as they outlasted SEC rival Kentucky. Playing without Sweet 16 star Chuma Okeke, who suffered a torn ACL on Friday, the Tigers rallied in the second half to beat the Wildcats behind Bryce Brown and Jared Harper to make their first Final Four in school history. The Wildcats’ great season ends behind a strong game from P.J. Washington as he overcame a foot injury last week to end a memorable sophomore season with 28 points and 13 rebounds.
Texas Tech advanced to its first Final Four in school history as well with a win over No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday. In a close Elite Eight matchup in the West Region, the Red Raiders held off the Bulldogs with shot-making from Jarrett Culver and Matt Mooney while Gonzaga was held to 7-for-26 three-point shooting. Rui Hachimura (22 points) and Brandon Clarke (18 points) both had strong games while Josh Perkins (16 points) committed a late out-of-bounds foul that sealed the game for the Red Raiders.
The final Elite Eight thriller saw No. 2 seed Michigan State outlast No. 1 seed Duke in the East Region. Cassius Winston (20 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks) and Xavier Tillman (19 points, nine rebounds) both had big games for the Spartans as they limited turnovers to shock the No. 1 overall seed. The loss likely ends the college career of freshmen Zion Williamson (24 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks, three steals) and R.J. Barrett (21 points, six assists) as the Blue Devils fall short of the Final Four when many considered them a title favorite.
Between the four great games, two overtime thrillers, a buzzer-beater to force overtime and some big star performances, this makes a strong case for the best Elite Eight ever. We had a jaw-dropping Edwards performance in a losing effort, two blueblood programs (Duke and Kentucky) getting upset in close games and the final college game of the sport’s biggest star of the decade (Zion).
And that doesn’t even include Auburn and Texas Tech making the first Final Four in school history, Izzo’s finest coaching job and Winston’s heroics and Goins’ big shot. Virginia overcoming a shaky reputation and the Tigers overcoming the loss of Okeke to injury.
The first weekend might have been mostly chalk. The second weekend of the 2019 NCAA tournament was a great one as it culminated in memorable Elite Eight games and stars coming through in the clutch. It’s led to some unexpected Final Four matchups, but at least college hoops fans have plenty to talk about this week after some ridiculous games.
Injured Auburn forward Chuma Okeke returns to cheer for Tigers during Elite Eight win
Auburn advanced to the Final Four without starting forward Chuma Okeke on Sunday but the Tigers still had the sophomore on the sidelines despite his recent knee injury.
Suffering a torn ACL in the win over North Carolina in the Sweet 16 on Friday night, Okeke was wheeled into the arena for the second half as he watched Auburn close out SEC-rival Kentucky to advance to the Final Four for the first time.
After the Tigers and head coach Bruce Pearl secured the win to advance to Minneapolis, Okeke also added the Auburn name to the next part of the bracket — something he also did on Friday after the win over the Tar Heels.
Okeke is out for the rest of the NCAA tournament, as he’s scheduled to have surgery early this week. It’s hard to say if Okeke will be in Minneapolis if he’s scheduled for an operation, but the Tigers have used the injured forward to give them an emotional lift.