MINNEAPOLIS -- Most everyone in U.S. Bank Stadium thought the game was over. The buzzer had sounded, and not everyone had heard the ref's whistle amid all the noise and confusion. Virginia fans, hands on their heads, thought the game was over. The public address announcer certainly thought the game was over, as he announced that Auburn had won and would proceed to the national title game on Monday.
It sure seemed like Kyle Guy thought the game was over as well. With 6.5 seconds left, he had hit a 3 from the corner to bring Virginia to within a point. After Auburn made one of two free throws, and after Auburn fouled Virginia – twice – Virginia's Ty Jerome was inbounding the ball parallel to the top of the key, down two with 1.5 seconds left. Guy sprinted out from the paint, sprung free from his defender, Auburn's Samir Doughty, and caught Jerome's inbounds pass in the corner with his back to the basket. He spun and fired. Doughty contested his shot. The ball clanged high off the back of the rim. Guy pulled his jersey partially over his face. It seemed like he was beginning the postgame ritual of mourning that his team had gotten this close to a national title without making it to the final game on Monday night.
Except that's not what Guy was doing. At the exact same time that Guy's 3 bounced high off the rim, one of the referees, James Breeding, whistled a foul. As Guy was coming down to the court on his follow through, Doughty had made contact with Guy's right side. On the Virginia bench, associate head coach Jason Williford said he hadn't heard the whistle, but he saw the ref's arm go up in the air to call the foul. The only question was whether it was going to be for two shots or three.
"I heard him call it right away," Guy, a junior guard, said afterward. "They were asking me, 'Did I know (that it was a foul)?' Because I put my hand (or) my face into my jersey. But that was me focusing. I knew they called a foul. … I just literally told myself that we dream of these moments, and to be able to make one happen was special."
As special as this moment was -- and as nerve-wracking as it was for Guy, who said he was "terrified" -- it was also incredibly confusing. First was the question on a missed call on a double dribble by Jerome seconds before. It was a difficult call, but it was most certainly a missed call. And then there was the confusion with fan bases and teams.
Auburn fans and players were irate, with boos raining down for several minutes. Their fans back in Alabama even had begun celebrating on Toomer's Corner. Virginia fans and players went from devastated, from feeling that their team had lost the game through a 14-0 run by Auburn, to again being on edge: Not knowing what the refs were going to decide when they strode over to the scorer's team.
"I saw the official called a foul, and I was just hoping that the call stood," said Virginia sophomore wing DeAndre Hunter. "I don't know if Kyle (Guy) knew if it was a foul, but I told him, and he just got ready to shoot the free throws."
"I just couldn't believe they called a foul on that shot," Virginia freshman point guard Kihei Clark said.
"We kind of thought we had it sealed," Auburn senior guard Bryce Brown said. "I just didn't think it was a foul, but the refs thought otherwise. Can't go back and rewind it."
The refs did rewind it. They awarded Guy three free throws, and they put 0.6 seconds back on the clock.
As the refs huddled up, so did the Virginia players. They did not speak to Guy. It was like a pitcher who was in the middle of a no-hitter: You don't talk to him. He sits at the end of the dugout, alone with his thoughts. The rest of the team spoke about "when" guy would make his free throws, not "if."
"I can't lie to you and say I knew I was going to hit them," Guy said afterward. "I was terrified, but I had confidence in myself. This is what we dream of."
He hit the first two. Auburn called a timeout to set up a play. Virginia huddled up to set up their defense with 0.6 seconds left. Guy stood on the outskirts of the huddle, still alone with his thoughts. "I don't even know if he knew the defense we were running – he was just focused on himself and his free throw," Virginia junior forward Braxton Key said.
"I didn't want to have anything to do with my teammates or coaches," Guy said. "I just wanted to be in my own space."
He strode back to the free throw line. He hit the final free throw. Auburn tried to a desperation heave at the buzzer. It didn't fall. Improbably -- impossibly --.
One year and 22 days after Virginia lost to UMBC to become the first one-seed to lose to a 16-seed, it was advancing to the national title game. They've made it this far in a fashion that makes it seem as if luck, or karma, is on their side. They survived a scary push by 16-seed Gardner Webb. They escaped Oregon in the Sweet 16 in a four-point win. They overcame a white-hot Carsen Edwards and Purdue in overtime in the Elite Eight. And then Saturday night, a game they thought they had lost -- that the public address announcer said they had lost -- until they didn't.
Maybe it's destiny. Maybe it's luck. Maybe it's the cliché on the motivational poster in their weight room coming to life: "Success Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity." Over the past few days, Tony Bennett spoke about the very intentional way that he and his coaching staff helped his team process that UMBC loss over the past year – and that it made them all stronger in the long run. It made them a team that was mentally prepared to become the first Final Four team since Michigan in 1989 to win a game that's decided by free throws with five or fewer seconds left.
"I don't know what's destined," said Virginia junior center Mamadi Diakite. "We somehow ended up winning – every crazy shot, every crazy game like that.
"I was sure that he was going to make it," he said of Guy's free throws. "But I was a little nervous – a lot nervous."