MINNEAPOLIS — There is winning while being outplayed. Next there is snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Then there are several other gradients of good fortune. And only then is there what happened to Virginia on Saturday night at the Final Four.
Virginia will try not to look back, its 63-62 victory having stunned Auburn and sent the top-seeded Cavaliers to their first national championship game. They will play Michigan State or Texas Tech, who met later on Saturday night, in the final on Monday night. But the way Virginia got there was something to behold.
Giving up a 10-point lead in the last five minutes by letting fifth-seeded Auburn score, eventually, 14 straight points, the Cavaliers, in their third Final Four, then cut the Tigers’ lead to a point when the junior Kyle Guy hit a 3-pointer with 7 seconds left.
Fouling immediately, Virginia put Jared Harper on the line, where he made his first free throw and missed his second. After a timeout, and a double-dribble violation on Guy that the referees missed, Virginia got Guy a relatively open look in the left corner at the buzzer. Guy missed the shot. The game appeared to be over. Auburn had won.
But before Guy returned to the floor, a whistle! A foul. And sure enough, on the television replays, there was the Auburn junior Samir Doughty defending Guy, arms straight up but his body colliding with Guy’s as he released his shot. In other words, it was not the kind of foul that affected the shot’s trajectory. But it was a foul nonetheless.
Guy, an 81.8 percent free-throw shooter now presented with three free throws to give his team the lead, made the first two. Auburn called timeout. The teams huddled, and then returned to the court. Guy made the third. There was 0.6 seconds left, not enough time for Auburn to so much as get off a shot. Game over. Virginia wins.
Virginia (34-3), which is appearing in its first Final Four since the N.C.A.A. tournament expanded to a 64-team bracket in 1985, will play for the championship only one year after its team became the first and only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the history of the men’s tournament. The Cavaliers have carried that loss around all season; now they are one win from atoning for it in the best possible way.
Virginia won at a higher clip than any team this year. It is infrequently pretty and never flashy. In its regional final against Purdue, Virginia’s win required an improbable buzzer-beating shot and overtime. In this win, it barely felt deserved. But the tournament’s mantra of “survive and advance” exists for a reason.
In the program’s first Final Four, the Tigers (30-10) acquitted themselves well despite being forced to play at Virginia’s slow speed rather than the quick pace they prefer.
Coming out of halftime, Auburn led by 3. Virginia had been 28-0 when leading at the half, but only 5-3 when it trailed.
Auburn was playing how it wanted to play, with guards Harper and Bryce Brown driving to the basket early in the shot clock and attempting to finish at the rim or kicking the ball out for a deep shot by a teammate.
Auburn had squandered that 3-point lead over the first five minutes of the second half, allowing Virginia to go on a 7-0 run. The Tigers trailed by 10 after Virginia’s Ty Jerome hit a jumper as the shot clock expired — the Platonic ideal of an offensive possession for the deliberate Virginia offense — and the star sophomore De’Andre Hunter scored from the post and then Jerome hit his fourth 3-pointer of the evening.
Hunter finished with 14 points, while Jerome led all scorers with 21.
But soon it was time for an Auburn r. The comeback was led by Brown, who hit his second, third and fourth 3-pointers of the game. He finished with 12 points.
The production was overdue for Auburn, one of the country’s top 3-point-shooting teams, after it went 3 for 14 from beyond the arc in the first half against Virginia’s deep-shot-denying, pack-line defense. The Tigers finished 9 for 31 on 3-pointers over all.
Virginia did not do itself any favors during this stretch. It turned the ball over on a shot clock violation. It gave up two offensive rebounds. Hunter committed an offensive goaltending violation. Mamadou Diakite missed two free throws.
Trailing with less than 30 seconds left and not yet in the bonus, Virginia had to foul three times before Auburn went to the free-throw line, where Anfernee McLemore, a junior, hit both free throws.
Then it was Guy’s 3-pointer, Harper’s free throw, then the shot, the foul, and the ending, unforgettable and devastating.