Final Four Recap: Virginia v. Auburn

- Matt Cox

It all began with me and my two colleagues furiously scouring the overwhelmingly complex media seating chart Saturday evening in Minneapolis at roughly 4PM local time. From where would we be witnessing college basketball’s grandest show?

Well, we assumed we’d be bumping shoulders will Jim Nantz and the CBS big wigs court side, but an *unfortunate* mix-up had us slotted in the “MW3” area, the last row of the media section tucked securely behind the Virginia student section AND the CBS / Turner in-stadium studio.

We’ve yet to determine if this was intentional or malicious, but we’ll let you unscramble “MW3” and arrive at your own conclusion to this conspiracy theory.

Regardless, we put our heads down, rolled up our sleeves and went to work like the'Big J’ journalists [we think] we are…

The very first possession of the game foreshadowed what would be a rather mind-numbing first half. Blame Virginia, I guess…

The Hoos simply did ‘Hoo-things’. After the Cavaliers stymied the star-struck Tigers into a shot-clock violation just 30 seconds into the game, it felt like the inevitable Virginia slow roast was coming. The patented pack-line defense made Auburn work tirelessly for open looks while the offense stayed true to its roots – the methodical mover / blocker. Tony Bennett turned back the clock to last year’s systematic blueprint and confounded Auburn’s defense with a myriad of screens away from the ball for the first 10 minutes.

At face value, this ‘stylistic strategery’ made perfect sense. Auburn’s collection of positionless wings and forwards enables them to switch almost every ball screen on the perimeter in somewhat of a reactionary fashion, but Virginia was able to expose their lack of defensive discipline away from the ball with a steady stream of screens and cuts from all angles. The Tigers were burned badly on the back end multiple times for easy layups, as their heads were tied in a knot trying to mark the unpredictable off-ball movement. Such was the case in this easy dish-and-finish from Kyle Guy to Mamadi Diakite less than a minute and a half into the game.

Yet, eight minutes in, it was Auburn who held an early 13-10 lead and that feeling of “how is Virginia not up by 10 points” overcame me for the fourth straight game in this tournament. Despite putting the opposition in a vice grip on defense and generating consistent open looks on offense, the scoreboard tally and the ‘feel’ tally just didn’t match up. Virginia couldn’t cure itself of the cold shooting virus that’s been contagious for nearly month and a typically sturdy defensive rebounding fortress surrendered an uncharacteristic number of 2nd and 3rd shot chances to Auburn. All that, combined with Deandre Hunter continuing to sleepwalk his way through the NCAA tournament, helped the Tigers stay neck-and-neck with UVA the entire first half. Just before halftime, an Anfernee McLemore trey ball silenced the previously rowdy Virginia fanbase and simultaneously gave the Tigers a 3-point advantage entering the break.

Remember all those lazy, regurgitated “keys to the game” us media folk were absolutely certain had to hold true for Auburn to have a chance in this game? You know, “Auburn HAS to hit shots against the pack-line” or “Auburn HAS to control the pace and speed up Virginia”…

Well, after 20 minutes of play, both of those cookie-cutter takes had been completely debunked.

Not only was the game being played in slow motion, but Auburn was a freezing cold 21% from downtown (3/14). Yet, here were the Tigers, up by a field goal on the undisputed Final Four favorite 20 minutes away from playing for a national championship.

Thankfully, the second half mirrored the script of a second season TV show – that is, a refreshing jolt of excitement after a season of setup. The Cavaliers’ offense got an unexpected scoring shipment from Hunter and Kihei Clark, who paced Virginia with a combined 15 points in the first 12-minutes of the second half, helping the Cavs seize a 6-point lead at the under-8 timeout. Ty Jerome delivered another bone-crushing right hook to Auburn’s jugular with a deep three shortly after, which extended the margin to double-digits with five minutes to go.

In a game moving at a molasses pace, that 10-point lead felt like 100. Still, those dam Tigers just wouldn’t go away…

Bruce Pearl promptly called upon his own assassin, Bryce Brown, to lead Auburn’s last stand. Brown responded by burying three tough triples, which coincided with another ill-timed UVA scoring drought, and what was once an Everest-sized deficit suddenly became a comfortable 4-point Auburn lead.

That rapid turn of events is just one of a bajillion microcosms which prove just how mad, crazy, drunk the month of March can get, especially when the stakes are raised to the highest limits – but what transpired over the final 15 seconds will undoubtedly define the headline of this semifinal instant classic…

An acrobatic corner three by Kyle Guy kept Virginia on life support, but this blown no-call on a clear double-dribble by Jerome gave the Cavs one last prayer to keep their season alive.

We are obligated to show both of the following clips so you, the reader, can arrive at your own conclusion.

Was this the most obvious double-dribble in the history of basketball?

Or should there have been a foul called prior to the double-dribble?

And if you thought that sequence was contentious, the ensuing possession essentially said, “hey prior possession! I see that lame controversy and raise you the following…”

Kyle Guy proceeded to casually splash home all three free-throws, which kept the heartbeat on Virginia’s season thumping, and simultaneously sent my internal emotions into a whirlwind of conflict and confusion…

To be frank, I don’t care where you stand on those referee disputes. You’re more than welcome to join the zebra bashing brigade, but I won’t be tagging along. Thankfully, two of the games’ most astute coaching minds were able to eloquently contextualize that emotional roller coaster from their respective locker room vantage points.

For Tony Bennett, it was about taking the second to last step in the long and windy road to redemption, a journey which began well before last year’s soul-crushing defeat to UMBC…

It's a great story. It is. I told those guys, and I said it, I think, at the press conference here. Two years ago we were playing in Orlando against Florida and just getting blown out. They were at the scorer's table, and there was maybe two or three minutes left, and I huddled down by them. I said, this is going to change. It's okay, but take note of this, we're going to do this.

Then after the UMBC game, we sat in the holding area after that loss, and I said, we're not going to put up Isaiah or Devon, our two seniors. Ty and Kyle, we're going to be up there, and that's going to be one of the hardest things, facing that press conference, but it starts now. It's going to mark something. I said, we're going to get through this, but you guys need to be up there with me, and we need to go through this, and we need to go through next year together. We need each other. I knew it was going to be such an important time in our lives no matter how it played out.

To see them earmark those guys after that game in Orlando two years ago, and then after, to put them -- that's not a fun setting for anybody in the press conference. And now to sit with them here brings great joy to my heart, it really does, because it's good. That's all I can say, and I'm so thankful. Again, whether it happened or not, I would have been so thankful for what they've done for this program and our bond through this all.

For Bruce Pearl and his party-crashing Tigers, this was a milestone moment for a program devoid of any historical achievements on the national scale…

Yeah, I think that for us, I thought that we looked like we belonged. We were -- we weren't supposed to be here. We weren't supposed to have a chance to win -- or maybe had a chance to win, but unlikely.

Just like we have done all year long, even when we got down, there was still time on the clock, and there were points to be scored, rebounds to be had, and I thought our kids made a lot of plays, a lot of plays to be able to win the game

For the rest of you out there, well, you’re free to let that sour grapes taste linger in your mouth and chalk up Saturday night’s drama to yet another episode of referee incompetence. True to my against-the-grain nature, I’m going the other way on this one (per the explicit direction of Pearl himself)…

Let's not remember this game because of just how it ended. Let's remember two teams that played really hard that only had 13 turnovers combined, didn't shoot it very well because there was great defense. It had nothing to do with the sight lines or the rims. We missed a lot of threes. We missed some open shots, but we played against a great defense. It was a great college basketball game.