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NCAA Final Four: After wild finish, Virginia dances past Auburn into title game

NCAA Final Four: After wild finish, Virginia dances past Auburn into title game
Virginia players celebrate after defeating Auburn 63-62 in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament on Saturday in Minneapolis. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Kyle Guy pulled the neckline of his jersey over his face, walking away from the spot where he’d missed a last-second three-pointer.

The clock showed 0:00 and Guy’s team trailing by two points in an NCAA tournament national semifinal Saturday at US Bank Stadium. Somehow, not all was lost for the Virginia Cavaliers.

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You just had to hear it to believe it.

A whistle had blown. Auburn fans roared in disbelief. Tigers players thrust their arms into the air incredulously.

Auburn guard Samir Doughty had been called for a foul after racing toward the corner to defend Guy and bumping him with his body. Guy was going to receive three free throws after officials put six-tenths of a second back on the clock.

He stepped to the line without any doubts.

“I just literally told myself,” Guy said, “that we dream of these moments.”

Guy made the first two free throws to tie the score before Auburn called timeout in an attempt to rattle him. Tigers fans intensified their howling over the situation, but Guy returned to make the final free throw.

When Auburn’s Bryce Brown missed a twisting, desperation shot at the buzzer, it sealed Virginia’s improbable 63-62 victory after a wildly vacillating sequence over the final minutes.

“Survive and advance, I guess that’s taking on a new meaning,” said Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett, whose team blew a 10-point lead with 5:24 left only to recover in stunning fashion.

One year after becoming the first top-seeded team to lose in the first round of this tournament, Virginia made a different sort of history. The Cavaliers (34-3) will make their first appearance in a national championship game Monday when they play the winner of the second game between Michigan State and Texas Tech.

“This time last year,” said Virginia guard Ty Jerome, who led his team with 21 points, “we were starting spring workouts.”

It looked like the Cavaliers were headed home again after they went scoreless for more than five minutes late in the game amid a series of empty possessions, missed free throws and unusually lax defense.

From a 57-47 deficit, Brown sparked the Tigers’ late 14-0 spurt with three three-pointers. Auburn’s Anfernee McLemore completed the run with two free throws that gave his team a 61-57 lead with 17.6 seconds left.

Guy countered with a desperate three-pointer that made it a one-point game, but there were only 7.4 seconds left. The Cavaliers immediately fouled Auburn’s Jared Harper, who made one of two free throws to increase the Tigers’ lead to 62-60.

Virginia wasn’t just battling the clock at that point. Auburn (30-10) had committed only four fouls, so the Tigers committed a fifth and a sixth in an effort to disrupt the Cavaliers’ offense.

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It nearly resulted in a game-clinching turnover when Jerome lost his dribble momentarily trying to go behind the back. He appeared to double-dribble on the play, but no violation was called. Auburn fouled Jerome once he regained control of the ball with 1.5 seconds left.

That allowed him to throw the inbounds pass to Guy in the corner, with Doughty racing over as he whirled to shoot. Doughty held his arms straight up in the air but made contact with his Guy’s legs and midsection.

The whistle blew. Guy immediately knew he was headed to the free throw line. The Tigers could not believe it.

“I just didn’t think it was a foul,” Brown said, “but the refs thought otherwise. Can’t go back and rewind it.”

The NCAA released a statement after the game, referencing a rule that does not allow defenders to make contact while taking away a shooter’s landing space.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl did not make an issue of the call after screaming in protest when it happened, saying he’d “like it to be remembered for a great game. Let’s not remember the game because of just how it ended.”

That sentiment is probably wishful thinking even for a wildly overachieving team appearing in its first Final Four. Auburn’s band played Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” in the minutes before tipoff, a fitting theme song for the fifth-seeded Tigers.

Endings this time of year are all that really matter. Just ask the Cavaliers, who persevered for a crazy comeback over Purdue in a regional final last weekend after retrieving the ball in the backcourt with 3.5 seconds left and getting off a tying shot that led to victory in overtime.

“These last two games,” Bennett said, “oh, my, how they ended.”

The postgame scene said it all. As the Cavaliers mobbed Guy, lifting him into the air, Brown and McLemore fell to the court, distraught. Harper pulled his jersey over his face, but there would be no startling reprieve for the Tigers.

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