In Virginia’s first Final Four since 1984 and Auburn’s first appearance in the national semi-final ever, the Cavaliers (34-3, 16-2 ACC) came out on top in a thriller. The game went down to the wire, as Virginia beat the Tigers (30-10, 11-7 SEC) 63-62.
“I stand in awe of this journey,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “I really do, and I am really thankful for it.”
The journey so far hasn’t been an easy one, as Virginia has now advanced with two narrow victories in the past two rounds. Nonetheless, the Cavaliers are moving on to the National Championship game for the first time in program history.
“I don’t really have the words for how I feel,” junior guard Kyle Guy said. “I really don’t. I’ve been pinching myself the whole time we’ve been in Minneapolis because it doesn’t really feel real, but I’m just so happy right now.”
To start the game, Virginia went with Guy, freshman guard Kihei Clark, sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter, junior guard Ty Jerome and junior forward Mamadi Diakite. Meanwhile, the Tigers had senior forward Horace Spencer, junior guard Jared Harper, senior guard Bryce Brown, senior guard Malik Dunbar and junior forward Anfernee McLemore on the court for tip-off.
In the first half, the game remained close throughout all 20 minutes, with the lead changing seven times. Virginia’s lead never exceeded five points, and the Tigers’ largest lead was three points.
The Cavaliers slowed down the pace, minimizing Auburn’s chances to run down the court and pick up fast-break points. Virginia’s defense also kept the Tiger’s offense in check, holding the normally solid three-point shooting team to 21.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Overall, Auburn was 41.4 percent on all field goal attempts. Virginia’s offense wasn’t much more successful though, as they shot 43 percent on field goals and converted on only three three-pointers.
Coming out of the locker room trailing 31-28, Virginia went on a quick 6-0 tear to reclaim the lead. Auburn’s struggles offensively worsened as the Tigers didn’t score in the second half until 5:46 had passed. Unable to fully capitalize on Auburn’s scoring drought, Virginia’s lead remained narrow. As the clock wound down, the Cavaliers built their first double-digit lead of the night with 5:22 to play, seeming to be comfortably ahead.
However, a late 14-0 run by Auburn and Jerome on the bench with four fouls made it seem like the Tigers had sealed their ticket to the National Championship game. The game had another twist though, as Guy was fouled taking a three-point shot with less than a second remaining. Knocking down all three free throws, the Cavaliers picked up a 63-62 win to advance out of the semi-final round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I can’t lie to you and say I knew I was going to hit them,” Guy said. “I was terrified, but I [had] confidence in myself. This what we dream of. For me to be able to do this for our team, I couldn’t be happier.”
The Cavaliers finished the night shooting 56.5 percent on field goals and 40 percent from three in the second half. With the exception of Guy’s final three free-throws, the free-throw line wasn’t Virginia’s most successful place as they shot 50 percent from three.
Jerome finished as the Cavaliers’ leading scorer with 21 points. He also was the team’s leader in rebounds and assists, with nine and six, respectively. Guy was behind him with 15 points, while Hunter scored 14 points.
While advancing to the National Championship game is momentous for any team, for a Virginia team that was upset as the No. 1 seed in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, this journey has been remarkable.
“It’s a great story, it is,” Coach Bennett said. “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 [in the post-game press conference]. 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’… and now to sit with them here brings great joy to my heart, it really does.”
“To think this time last year we were starting spring workouts, and to still be playing at this point in the season with, after tonight, one other team in the whole country on the stage that you dreamed about since you were a little kid, it’s an unreal feeling,” Jerome added.
Virginia will next play Texas Tech in the National Championship game in Minneapolis, Minn. at 9:20 p.m.