SportsPulse: A controversial foul call played a pivotal role in Virginia beating Auburn in the Final Four and both teams voiced their opinions on it after the game.
MINNEAPOLIS — We probably ask too much of our sports. We want them filled with human drama and high stakes. We want the athletes to rise to the occasion, and we sure as hell want the officials to get out of the way.
But sometimes they’re part of the story, if for no other reason than these are chaotic games played by imperfect human beings, officiated by imperfect human beings who only have a microsecond to decide whether they have any choice other than to make themselves part of the outcome.
When Virginia guard Kyle Guy turned around to catch an inbounds pass and heave a final, desperate shot that never got above the rim, there was a moment Saturday night where everything stopped.
In that frozen second, Auburn had won and Virginia had lost. That’s what some people on both benches thought they saw, anyway, as Guy pulled his jersey over his mouth, and Auburn coach Bruce Pearl turned to walk toward center court.
“I thought it might have been over,” Virginia’s Jay Huff said.
“For a second,” Mamadi Diakite said, ”I thought we were going home.”
CAVALIERS PREVAIL: Virginia stuns Auburn with help from foul call
PRESSURE MOMENT: Guy was ‘terrified’ taking game-winning free throws
Nobody likes to see a Final Four basketball game turn around on a referee’s whistle with 0.6 seconds to go. But here’s the bottom line to Virginia’s incredible 63-62 escape over Auburn after a foul call put Guy at the line for three foul shots that put the Cavaliers into the national championship game: It was the right call.
And in the end, isn’t that what matters most?
“Any time a whistle is blown in the last 10 seconds of a basketball game or football game or not called in the last NFC championship, there’s going to be controversy,” Guy said. “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. But I think the ref made the right call in my opinion. Auburn is going to think otherwise, and I’ve been in their shoes before.”
First of all, give James Breeding credit for having the guts to blow the whistle in that spot, something no ref should want to do. But you can watch the play a thousand times from a dozen angles, and the conclusion is the same. As Guy rises to release the shot, Auburn’s Samir Doughty jumped into Guy’s lower body, impacting his shot both on the way up and not giving him anywhere to land on the way down.
It’s a foul.
“It seemed like the ref wasn’t about to call it, but I can’t really tell you what’s going on in these refs minds,” Doughty said. “They are going to make the best decision to their ability. I’m pretty sure he made the right call if that’s what he called.”
It’s a debate in basketball that will never go away, at least until some higher life form gets into the officiating business. How much of a foul should actually be called a foul when the outcome is literally on the line? And how unfortunate is it that we’re talking about a whistle when the real story of what happened Saturday is that Virginia saved its season again when it should be going home.
“Honestly, at the end of the day, whatever happened out there probably wouldn’t happened 100 out of 100 times,” Virginia forward Braxton Key said. “But for some reason, this one time it happened.”
With 5:22 remaining, the Cavaliers were up 10, which usually qualifies as one of the safest leads in all of sports. Then suddenly they were down 61-57 with 17 seconds left, a collapse that would have made a program with an already-tortured NCAA Tournament history the subject of endless ridicule.
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“We didn’t play with a lot of poise,” point guard Kihei Clark said. “I thought the season was over.”
If you want to believe what happened next is some kind of extended karmic payback for Virginia after the heartbreak of last year’s loss to UMBC as the first No. 1 seed taken out by a No. 16, go ahead.
There are lots of lessons in how Virginia handled that loss. From the moment it happened, Bennett owned it completely. He ever made excuses, never tried the change the subject when it came up — and it did over and over and over again during the last 12 months.
As it turns out, the reward wasn’t just an improbable Elite Eight win over Purdue, which required an improbable tap-back off a missed free throw, then a quick hit-ahead pass to Diakite for an awkward 10-footer at the buzzer just to get the game to overtime.
It is now two wins of similar dramatic flare, only this time with Guy drilling a 3-pointer from the corner with seven seconds left to pull within 61-60, Auburn guard Jared Harper missing a foul shot that opened the door and then Guy, an 82% foul shooter, stepping to the line for the biggest shots of his life.
“He’s ice,” Key said. “He’s built for moments like this.”
In the Virginia huddle, they left him alone. Before his first shot, Guy’s eyes wandered to the crowd. He was looking for his fiancée, Alexa, but couldn’t see her through the crowd. He instead locked eyes with his father, Joe, who mouthed, “You’ve got this.” During a timeout before he made the final one, Guy was so locked in mentally he didn’t even listen to what Virginia was going to do defensively on the ensuing inbounds play.
“I wasn’t settling for two. I was either going to make one or make all three,” Guy said. “I had confidence in myself. Obviously it’s a big stage, and there’s a tingly feeling in my stomach. It was a good kind of nervousness.”
Auburn, of course, was devastated. The swing of emotion of believing you’ve won to knowing you’ve lost isn’t easy, especially when another referee may have let that go. Especially when another clip of Virginia guard Ty Jerome began circulating that seemed to show a double-dribble off his leg right without Auburn touching it before Guy’s shot (Jerome said Auburn was trying to foul him).
But counting on those split-second judgment calls to always go your way is a fool’s errand. The truth is, Auburn should never have been in position to win this game. But once it was, a missed free throw and a clear foul allowed Virginia just enough opportunity to steal it back.
“It’s such a bang-bang play,” Auburn assistant Steven Pearl said. “How is the referee supposed to see if he kicked the ball as opposed to our guy touching it? That’s a tough one. It looked from our side like he kicked it, and we didn’t touch it. But it’s just one of those things you have to deal with.”
That’s, in the end, exactly what sports are about — no matter how messy they are. Virginia won and Auburn lost, even though there was a moment where everyone in the building thought the opposite had just happened.
The fact it all changed on a foul isn’t ideal for anyone, particularly the guy who had to call it. But expecting Breeding to do anything other than get it right in that moment would have been a disservice to a terrific game.