MINNEAPOLIS — This is the picture of a team trying to cope with the cruel side of college basketball fate. This is the Auburn locker room.
A young man sits in his chair, with the tattoo lion hearted on his chest. The next few minutes, Samir Doughty must be exactly that, for the cameras have crowded around, wanting to know his feelings about the last second of a Final Four game that neither Auburn nor Virginia will soon forget.
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“I definitely feel like we deserved a better result, but it’s always not going to be like that,” he begins. “I’m just going to allow God to take care of the decision.”
It was a foul. He did indeed invade Kyle Guy’s space on that last-ditch 3-pointer from the corner, which sent Guy to the line with 0.6 seconds and Auburn ahead 62-60. Swish, swish, swish. Three makes later, by a player who was an 81.8 percent free throw shooter, and Virginia’s magical mystery tour of redemption was going one more stop, to the very last Monday night.
The Auburn Tigers had only a devastated locker room to go. They may never accept that foul. Their fans won’t. Whether it should have been called after a physical game, whether a Virginia double dribble was missed a few seconds earlier.
But at this moment, there is nothing to do but stare ahead and try to put it into words.
At first, Doughty heard no whistle. “It seemed like he wasn’t about the make that call. I can’t tell you what’s going on in the refs’ minds. They’re going to make the best decisions to their ability.”
The Tigers had labored so hard to come from 10 points down in the last 5:22 against a renowned defense to get the lead, but suddenly there was nothing left to do but hope Guy missed, at least once. But deep down, Doughty knew. “That’s just how basketball works. A great shooter gets fouled on a 3-point play. I was pretty sure he was going to make them.
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“They hadn’t been calling those fouls all game. There were plays where there were fouls on 3-point shots, when there was no calls. For them to call that foul was kind of surprising.”
Soon, they trudged back to the locker room, the game and season suddenly gone. What was that like in those first few minutes?
“No words. Everybody was tearing up, like you’d expect,” he says, with his own eyes reddish. “We just wanted to play for each other and that ends right here.
“We’re not angry. We’re just disappointed it had to end like this.”
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Across the way, Steven Pearl sits at a locker. He is an assistant and Bruce Pearl’s son. Where the ball went that last second, they all expected on the Auburn bench.
“We knew they were going to throw the ball to that corner, that’s the only logical place to throw it in a second and a half.”
And then he saw Guy’s shot. “He air balls it. I thought the game was over, and then I saw somebody’s hand up. And they were sending one of the best free throw shooters in the country if not the best, to the line. It’s just one of those things you have to deal with.”
The locker room afterward? “There was really no words. Coach and our athletic director told the kids how proud they were of them. Obviously this is going to burn for a while, it’s going to hurt, but these kids have done something that no team at Auburn has ever done before.”
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In a corner, Bryce Brown sits in a chair. There is already a video making the online rounds of him shouting the NCAA needs new referees as the Tigers returned to their locker room.
“I regret saying that. I just got caught up in the moment. I apologize for that,” he says.
“Our hopes were high at one point, we thought we had it in the bag. That’s not where we lost the game, but that just made it hard for us. They let us play the whole entire game and I’m not going to hold back on what I feel. They let that play decide the game and I just didn’t agree with that.”
But as he said in his formal press conference, “Can’t go back and rewind it so . . .”
Everyone could agree that – bad call or good call – it was unfortunate that a Final Four game end amid such uproar. You have to go back 30 years to the 1989 championship game, where a highly debated foul with three seconds left gave Michigan the two free throws needed to beat Seton Hall by a point in overtime, to find something similar.
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Unfortunate, because it takes attention away from the remarkable journey Virginia is on, having pulled consecutive games out of the fire in extraordinary ways, this one to go with Purdue.
“Survive and advance. I guess that’s taking on a new meaning,” coach Tony Bennett said.
Unfortunate, that it distracts from Auburn’s gritty rally, and from the fact that Virginia is now one game away from a storybook ride to redemption from the UMBC loss.
And unfortunate, that what won’t be talked about enough is hard it was for Kyle Guy – no matter how glowing his free throw percentage – to stand at the line and make all three free throws.
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“Those are moments that every basketball player has dreamed of, hitting the game winning shot or free throws or whatever,” he said later. “Kind of had that feeling in your stomach, like a good nervousness, like, all right, this is my chance.
“I just literally told myself that we dream of these moments, and to be able to make one happen was special.”
But Auburn’s pain, and how it came to pass, was at center stage.
“I do feel for Auburn,” Bennett said. “I feel better for us right now.”
Bruce Pearl wanted something to be understood about his team that had beaten the odds to get here. “I thought we looked like we belonged.”
And his first words to his team afterward were not about questionable whistles or no-whistles.
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“We didn’t focus on that. We focused on how we were going to handle the defeat at Auburn with class and dignity. There are lots of calls during the game and you’re going to get some and some you’re not going to get.
“But it won’t, it can’t, don’t let it define the game, because you’re taking away from Ty Jerome (and his 21 Virginia points) 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. I’d love that to be the story.”
Back in the locker room, his players are trying to heed that advice. But still, Samir Doughty is curious about the ending.
“I‘m definitely going to watch that replay, I’ve got to watch that replay. If it’s a foul, then by all means I’ll take that. I’ll watch it when there’s not 55 cameras around.”