‘I don’t really have the words’: Told it had lost, Virginia pulls out another incredible, indescribable win

uva basketball bear creekMINNEAPOLIS — If you believe the PA announcer, the Virginia Cavaliers had lost. Their magical season had run out of magic. Storybook endings were just that — for storybooks.

At least, that’s if you believe the speakers that boomed over a frantic U.S. Bank Stadium. That’s what, for at least an instant, Jayden Nixon and Kody Stattman believed on the end of the Virginia bench.

“I thought they weren’t gonna call it,” Stattman deadpanned.

If you believed the reactions of the players on the court — Austin Wiley with both hands on his head, walking in the opposite direction in bewilderment and disgust, Kyle Guy knowingly nodding his head and pumping his fist — and the referees, with James Breeding headed to the scorers’ table, you knew there was even more madness to come. That’s what Kihei Clark saw and Mamadi Diakite heard from the floor. That’s what Austin Katstra saw from the bench. He didn’t even hear the announcement of the erroneous final score.

Samir Doughty had undercut Guy on a corner three-point attempt with 0.6 seconds remaining. It would send the Cavaliers’ best free-throw shooter to the line. If he hit all three, Virginia, down 62-60, would take the lead. Or rather, when he hit all three.

“It wasn’t even, ‘If he misses’ or, ‘If he makes it,’” Katstra said after Guy hit the first two and Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl called a timeout. “It was, ‘When he makes it, this is how we’re gonna line up so they can’t get a full-court heave. We all have confidence in him. We all knew he was going to make it.”

It was all but a formality, then, when Guy canned the third as the feeling of dread and dismay flooded into the hearts of the Auburn faithful.

But what, exactly, filled Guy’s heart as he headed to the line? It wasn’t exactly cool, calm and collected. But that’s a good thing. In those crucial seconds, he needed emotion.

“These are moments that every basketball player has dreamed of, hitting the game-winning shot or free throws or whatever,” Guy said. “Kind of had that feeling in your stomach, like a good nervousness, like, all right, this is my chance.

“To be able to go to the National Championship off of that for these guys and Coach Bennett, I mean, I really don’t have the words.”

If you had believed Guy, who had clenched both fists and unfurled a furious scream of joy — of ecstacy, really — five minutes and 22 seconds earlier, Virginia was headed toward victory. The Cavaliers, after Clark and Ty Jerome had splashed home back-to-back threes, were up 10. Pearl called for time, and the bench mob exploded out from its seats. The Virginia-dominated corner of the stadium was as loud as it had been all afternoon.

And perhaps, even for a moment, Virginia’s players thought they were on their way to victory, too.

“I thought we got enough cushion,” Clark said. “After those back-to-back threes, I thought that really gave us an edge in the game.”

That was the run the Cavaliers have pulled off time after time, game after game, year after year for the past half-decade-plus under Bennett. The defense was immaculate — Auburn scored just 17 points in the near-15 minutes before that Pearl timeout. The offense was even better, springing to life for 29 points in that same span. The Cavaliers’ best individual scorer, De’Andre Hunter, led the charge, scoring eight of his 14 points during that stretch.

“I thought his second half was key for us,” Bennett said. “I thought we played good basketball in the second half to get up [10].”

The Cavaliers could taste it. They could reach out and grab it. They had weathered the storm of a poor first half. They had played their best basketball when they needed to, creating separation after the first 34 minutes of the game lacked just that for either team. After going to their first Final Four in 35 years, they were on track for their first championship game appearance.

Monday night’s championship had never seemed closer.

All season, the Auburn Tigers have prided themselves on how they respond. How they responded from how last year ended — a 31-point loss to Clemson in the Round of 32 that led to their “Unfinished Business” motto. How they responded from a three-game losing streak in January that sent them tumbling out of the Top 25. How they responded from a 27-point late-February loss to Kentucky, when Bruce Pearl stopped the film review prematurely and told them to forget about it because that wasn’t Auburn basketball. Coming into Saturday night, the Tigers had won 12 in a row following Kentucky’s romp at Rupp. Even in the Sweet 16, after losing star Chuma Okeke to a torn ACL in the second half, they demolished North Carolina and then survived Kentucky in overtime in the Elite Eight.

Virginia basketball has buried plenty of teams with its second-half runs before. Auburn wasn’t about to join the list.

“All season long, we’ve been through a lot of adversity, and coach does a good job of just keeping us together,” Bryce Brown said. “Me and Jared do a good job of keeping the guys together. We’ve been down like that before, and I think it’s just staying together, somebody stepping up and just letting everybody know, no matter what happens, don’t go off and do your own thing. I feel like, at the end of the day in the game, we stayed together. That’s why we were able to make that run.”

The Tigers stayed together, and Brown himself did the stepping up. He buried a three with just over four minutes left and on the ensuing possession to cut the deficit to three. And he wasn’t done. With just under two minutes left, he buried a heavily contested corner three to give the Tigers a 59-57 lead. It was their first lead in nearly 18 minutes. It capped a 12-0 run.

Brown had nearly left for the NBA Draft after that loss to Clemson. But he believed in the “Unfinished Business” motto. He returned. He came within less than a second of leading Auburn to one of the most impressive comebacks the Final Four has seen.

“Bryce Brown [leading] Auburn back to an incredible come-from-behind victory,” Pearl said after the game. “I’d love that to be the story.”

If the Tigers had indeed completed it, that would have been the story, at least from Auburn’s perspective. From Virginia’s perspective the story would have been the epic collapse. The Cavaliers went five minutes and 15 seconds without scoring. And they went through that drought, largely, without Jerome.

With about four-and-a-half minutes left, Jerome appeared to get hit on a turnaround jumper, but no foul was called. He beelined for Auburn’s Jared Harper and made an unwise decision to try to poke the ball away. The result: a fourth foul for the game’s highest scorer.

Jerome’s an emotional player, and basketball, especially at this stage, is an emotional game. That’s what makes the two such a good match for one another. But in that moment, Jerome made the worst possible decision for himself and, in turn, his team.

“I was just so frustrated with myself,” Jerome said. “I let my frustration get the best of me, and I picked up my fourth foul. Just a bonehead play. It almost cost us the game.”

Jerome was forced to watch as Clark failed to keep the Virginia offense, seconds earlier so efficient, going.

“I thought when Ty got his fourth foul, things kind of got out of hand,” Clark said. “It’s partly my fault. I don’t think I did a very good job of keeping the team composed.”

Virginia was doomed. The collapse had come. Jerome couldn’t find the rhythm he once had when he came back in. The Cavaliers grounded to a halt just as the Tigers found their groove. It was now Auburn who had weathered the storm and responded. Victory, then, seemed certain.

In a game with as wild an ending as this one, it’s easy to forget the moments leading up to the moment.

There’s Virginia perfectly executing its late-game defense. The Cavaliers’ ability to defend without fouling — normally a good thing — was actually hurting them. Down 58-57, they needed three fouls to send Auburn to the line. They got all three in two seconds. After two Anfernee McLemore free throws, they ran a perfect play to Guy for a corner three, and he knocked it down under heavy pressure.

There wasn’t time for the Cavaliers to play at their normal, slowest-in-the-nation pace. There was — and always is — time to execute at a high level.

“That three Kyle hit was off a play that coach put in,” Jerome said. “Everyone did their job screening, and Kyle hit a super tough shot.”

Then Harper, an 83.1 percent free-throw shooter on the season, made just one of two. That set up the play that gave Guy three free throws.

“It’s a play we put in and practiced it multiple times,” Jerome said. “It wasn’t just luck. We worked on that situation a lot.”

The Virginia Cavaliers pulled a win out of the most unlikely of situations. They did it by remaining calm and poised, even after the PA announcer had told them their season was over. The free throws Guy made Saturday aren’t luck either. Guy shoots extras “every day” after practice, according to Hunter.

“We definitely take pride in trying to over-prepare,” Guy said. “We have a poster in our practice gym, in our weight room that says ‘Success Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity.’”

That poster takes on a new meaning Monday night.

The opportunity? A national championship.

The preparation? Well, this is the stage Virginia has aspired to get to for the past year. What better preparation than that?

Story by Zach Pereles

Augusta Free Press coverage of the 2019 postseason is presented by Bear Creek. Serving Waynesboro, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and surrounding communities, Bear Creek provides a hassle-free process to help homeowners create outdoor living spaces that bring people together. Schedule a consultation at BearCreek.co.


augusta free press
augusta free press
augusta free press news