I will not lie to you. It was a sucker punch to the gut. It left me feeling sick to my stomach. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory in the longest six seconds of my life.
Mary Lou and I have been loyally following the Auburn Tigers basketball team all year as they made their amazing run to the Final Four. I have watched more college basketball in person the last two years than I had in the previous 40. It was exciting, nail-biting, heart-wrenching and thrilling, over and over.
Along the way we came to believe that this group of players were in fact something special. After the crushing loss to Kentucky in midseason, we still believed that it would be a good, though maybe not great year.
They got better and better. Their defense improved until the very end. They improved their inside game while at the same time taking their three point shooting from good to great.
Even the coaching seemed to improve as the team peaked at the right time, just as the SEC Tournament got underway.
They had to beat Tennessee for the third time in one season to clinch the SEC Tournament crown and they did it convincingly. They moved to the NCAA Tournament as the fifth seed before eking out a one point win against New Mexico State.
After that, it just got better and better as Auburn had convincing wins over Kansas and North Carolina. The Tigers beat Kentucky in overtime despite having lost their best player, Chuma Okeke.
The Final Four was all that stood between these unlikely Tigers and the National Championship. The Auburn team was an underdog as they had been in the previous three games.
Auburn fought back from a 10 point deficit and made a 14-0 run in the last few minutes, when it counted the most, before pulling ahead. The Tigers had a two point lead with just six seconds left. A desperation shot was taken but bounced off the rim. Auburn won! Auburn won!
I hugged and kissed my wife. The Tigers were headed to the Championship Game. Only they weren’t. A double dribble call was missed with six seconds left that allowed Virginia to make that last desperate shot. Kyle Guy, the guard from Virginia was fouled and got to take three shots from the foul line.
Give Guy the credit. He calmly shot all three free throws. The Auburn lead slowly went from two points, to one point, to a tie. And then just like that, as the final free throw swished through the net, Auburn lost.
Auburn has been on both sides of heart wrenching losses. The Kick Six game over Alabama comes to mind quickly, though it was a different sport and different circumstances. Perhaps the New Orleans Saints’ loss against the Rams preventing the Saints from playing in the Super Bowl is more appropriate since it also involved a critical missed call near the end of the game.
Is a last second call more important than one missed in the first quarter? Should it matter that no other three point foul was called in the entire game? Should all plays be reviewable in the last minute? Does it matter that Ty Jerome himself admitted that he double dribbled and knew the officials would not call it?
Here is my takeaway from the 2019 Final Four and Auburn’s incredible season. Minneapolis was a fun city to visit. We had great food and entertainment. We continued to enjoy people we have met over the course of the season along with new friends we met in Minneapolis. We celebrated together and in the end, we commiserated together.
I am slowly putting the pain of the loss behind me, and ask any Auburn fan, this pain was significant. I realize that the loss in no way diminishes the great things this team and this coaching staff achieved on behalf of themselves and Auburn University.
Auburn fouled on the last shot. Virginia made three free throws and won the game. The officials missed a crucial call that almost certainly would have guaranteed an Auburn win. At the end of the day, Virginia won the game and I congratulate them on that.
Two days later, UVA won in overtime against Texas Tech. I thought Auburn would have beat Texas Tech, but we will never know. The Wahoo Nation will celebrate all night tonight and I do not blame them. March Madness spilled over into April and it is finally over.
Coach Pearl told his players and I suppose he was also telling the Auburn family to “Get over it” when it comes to the missed call and the tough way the game was lost. Officials make mistakes too, Pearl said. The game was not won or lost on one call.
The Auburn family will be defined not by loss of this particular game, but rather by the class and dignity with which we handle such a difficult loss.
Coach Pearl is right, of course. He was also right when he said that Auburn will reload and will be back next year. I will be sitting in my seat ready to support them once again. In the meantime, I will work on getting over it, Coach.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org