MINNEAPOLIS — Normal procedure for referees after college basketball games is to dart toward an arena’s tunnel in a brisk jog.
On Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium, they broke into a full-on sprint.
There was really no other choice considering the venom being spewed their way by Auburn fans after Virginia’s controversial 63-62 victory over the Tigers in the opening bout of the Final Four.
A gaggle of students seated behind the basket rushed toward a barricade to curse and hiss at the officials as they hurried up the tunnel. Paper cups, liquids and, according to some reports, a few plastic soda bottles rained down from the stands. Security guards wrestled with another fan who had kicked over a bundle of chairs in disgust.
“The NCAA needs to get some new refs!” Auburn guard Bryce Brown screamed as he stormed through the concourse and into the Tigers’ locker room. “The NCAA needs to get some new refs!”
Replays would show Auburn had no reason to question a foul call with 0.6 seconds remaining that catapulted Virginia to a one-point win. Still, the angst and frustration of anyone in Tiger Nation at that moment was understandable.
Just imagine the joy of what looked to be the most monumental win in the history of the program being snatched away in an instant — and replaced with the pain of its most crushing defeat.
“We thought we had it sealed,” point guard Jared Harper said.
And pretty much anyone watching did, too.
One Auburn fan stood before a camera and poured a beer over his head in celebration as the final seconds ticked away and Auburn leading 62-60. A CBS television crew summoned boxing champion Deontay Wilder, an Alabama native, from the stands and was preparing to interview him about his home team’s big win.
Back on Auburn’s campus, students had stormed into Toomer’s Corner and were throwing rolls of toilet paper into the trees.
None of them, apparently, heard the sound of the whistle blown by referee James Breeding after Kyle Guy’s 3-pointer from the left corner bounced off the side of the rim. Breeding charged Auburn’s Samir Doughty with a foul for running under Guy and taking away his landing spot. Replays show that was clearly the case, as Guy came down on Doughty after releasing the errant heave.
“We were about to storm the court,” said Auburn forward Horace Spencer, who was on the bench. “We thought we had it won. But then (an official) walked over to the bench and said something. We were like, ‘Damn, that’s it? For real? They’re going to make all three of these free throws and we’ll have like 0.6 second left. You can’t win like that.’”
Indeed, with less than one second remaining, Guy stepped to the line to try to propel No. 1 seed Virginia into the title game for the first time in school history.
“I was terrified,” Guy said.
It certainly didn’t show, as Guy swished all three foul shots to give his squad the win. The victory marked the second straight game in which Virginia eked out a victory after appearing all but beaten, as the Cavaliers hit a last-second shot in regulation to force overtime in last week’s Elite Eight triumph over Purdue.
“These last two games … oh my!” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said.
Saturday’s heroics extended well beyond Guy’s clutch free throws.
Virginia led 57-47 at the 5:22 mark before surrendering a 14-0 run to Auburn that left the Tigers up 61-57 with only 17 seconds remaining. Virginia inbounded the ball and went the length of the court before Guy hit a 3-pointer that made it 61-60 with seven ticks left.
The Cavaliers immediately fouled Brown, the Auburn guard who had scored nine points in his team’s furious comeback. Brown made his first free throw and missed his second to make it 62-60. Auburn had two fouls to give and used them both over the next five seconds. Virginia, though, never lost confidence.
“We take pride in trying to over prepare,” said Guy, who had 15 points. “We have a poster in our practice gym, in our weight room that says, ‘Success Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity.’ We did a great job of staying disciplined in those last 10 seconds and making something happen.”
With 1.5 seconds remaining, Bennett called a timeout and drew up a catch-and-shoot play. Virginia executed it to perfection on Kihei Clark’s inbounds pass to Guy, who caught the ball in the corner before drawing a foul on Doughty during the shot. Guy’s free throws moments later won the game.
“They made some calls and missed some calls,” Doughty said. “That’s why they’re reffing the Final Four, because they’re the best of the bunch. Refs miss calls all the time. It’s not something we can harp on.”
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl refused to last out at officials over the call — nor did he complain about a missed double-dribble on Virginia’s Ty Jerome a few seconds earlier that likely would’ve changed the outcome.
“My advice, as an administrator of the game, is that if it’s a foul, call it,” Pearl said. “Call it at the beginning of the game, call it in the middle of the game, call it at the end of the game. Don’t call it more or less at any other time during the game. That was the call.
“But don’t let it define the game because then you’re taking away from Ty Jerome (21 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.”
Instead, fans of both schools will probably always remember Saturday’s game for what happened during that final second — a foul that crushed one team’s dreams while keeping another’s alive.
“People can say what they want,” Jerome said. “We’re going to the national championship.”