Well folks, all good things have to come to an end at some point. To each of you that have read and interacted with me throughout this season whether on here or on Twitter: I want to thank you for making this the season where I had the most fun watching/covering college basketball. College Basketball is the greatest sport out there and this season only reaffirmed that for me. This season meant so much to me that I wrote a 5 part closing series to end it. If you’ve missed the journey to get to this point: here’s a link to read the previous 4 parts.
What we saw in Auburn, Alabama in March is one of the most miraculous things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It was also one of Auburn’s best sports moments in school history. Yes, national championships in football will always be looked at as more significant which is fair, but a program that spent so many years at the bottom of the standings playing in the Final Four is one of the greatest accomplishments in Auburn sports history. Auburn Basketball played in the Final Four, that did happen. It was a dream of mine a few years ago for Auburn to play in the Final Four one day but I never thought I would see it during my time here as a student. I also never dreamed that the first NCAA Tournament game that I would go to would be a Final Four game featuring Auburn.
Auburn was joined in the Final Four by Michigan State, Texas Tech and Virginia. For Auburn and Texas Tech, it was each school’s 1st Final Four. Virginia was back for the first time since 1984 and Michigan State was back for the first time since 2015. As I journeyed to Minneapolis, I thought each team had as good of a chance to win the whole thing as anybody. I truly believed Auburn could beat Virginia and I think many of us share this sentiment. It was a game of contrasting styles but if Auburn could make shots and run a little bit, I liked our chances even more.
I got to Minneapolis in time Friday to take in all of the open practices inside U.S. Bank Stadium. Auburn was the first team to practice and they had a practice in front of more people then can fit inside Auburn Arena. Auburn had a practice in front of what I would estimate between 12-15K people. We’re talking practice folks,
Some transition practice for Auburn pic.twitter.com/Hbe5G7GG8U— Will McLaughlin (@ShootyHoopsWill) April 5, 2019
This event was really cool as it was free for everyone to attend. It allowed people that otherwise couldn’t see these teams play in the Final Four at least get to watch them in some capacity. A lot of families and kids got a chance to watch this team practice and I hope the takeaway they got from this was how fun this team was to watch. There were several locals that didn’t have a team in the Final Four but told me they were pulling for Auburn because of Bruce Pearl and because the team was fun to watch.
By the way, shoutout to Minneapolis. Yes it was a little cooler than many people would have liked but the city did a great job hosting the event. In my experiences there, it has always been one of the friendliest cities I’ve visited and this trip was no exception.
One of the things I really looked for in that practice was seeing how Auburn would shoot in a stadium setting. In that practice, I really liked what I saw from Samir Doughty. He was shooting the ball well and there’s always a unlikely player that tends to breakout on these scenes. My pick was Doughty.
My confidence didn’t waver as we entered the stadium for the game Saturday. Win or lose: this was going to be a once in a lifetime experience for me. I know that I’ll never get to sit this close to the floor for a Final Four game ever again.
My vantage point for tonight’s proceedings!!! pic.twitter.com/vMAPyNA0DW— Will McLaughlin (@ShootyHoopsWill) April 6, 2019
Let me tell ya’ll, the atmosphere for this game was simply incredible. And over 60,000 were in the building to watch Auburn play a basketball game. Other than the result for Auburn: this was an excellent basketball game full of drama, emotion and passion that makes College Basketball so great.
April 6th - Auburn loses to Virginia 63-62
Neither team shot the ball well early and the pace of the game clearly favored Virginia. Bryce Brown did make his first 3-pointer of the game but didn’t score again until late in the game. We’ll get there.
The 2 best players offensively in the first half of this game were Doughty and Anfernee McLemore. Here’s one of McLemore’s dunks off the feed from Bryce Brown.
McLemore made 2 dunks and hit a 3 that gave Auburn a 31-28 lead at halftime. But Auburn had a hard time slowing down Ty Jerome. Jerome led the Cavs with 13 points at half and finished the game with 21 points leading all scorers.
The start of the second half was not good for Auburn. Virginia scored the first 8 points of the half and it took 5:45 of the 2nd half before Jared Harper hit a 3 to break the scoring drought. Auburn kept it within striking distance and with about 7 minutes left, Jared hit a 3 to cut Virginia’s lead to 3.
Virginia went on a 7-0 run from here and led 57-47 with 5:14 left. Bruce Pearl called a rare timeout. Shots weren’t falling and time was running out. Something happened in the student section during the timeout that I’ll never forget. The students started chanting “Chuma, Chuma, Chuma” and “Why Not Us, Why Not Us, Why Not Us.” Coming out of that timeout, I knew Auburn wasn’t going to go down without a fight. Insert Bryce Brown.
This part of the game is what I want Auburn fans to remember from this game.
Bryce made 3 3s to give Auburn a 59-57 lead with 2 minutes left as Virginia’s offense went cold and Auburn’s defense turned it up a notch or two. With 20 seconds left, and the score still 59-57, Anfernee McLemore went to the line. For Chuma, For Chuma, he repeated as he made both free throws. To be honest, I thought Auburn had it. Virginia hadn’t scored in 5 minutes so surely that wasn’t going to change now. But Kyle Guy hit a 3 and Auburn was now up 61-60. Auburn got fouled and Jared Harper made 1-2 from the line.
You know what happened next. Auburn had the game won, until they didn’t. I celebrated in the student section for about 5 seconds until I noticed the expression on Bryce Brown and Austin Wiley’s faces. Oh no.... they called a foul didn’t they? Was it a foul on Guy on the last shot? Yes. Was that called all game? No. The next question: was he behind the 3-point line. I saw the replay to confirm my worst fears. I knew Guy was going to make all 3 of his free throws. He did.
Game over. Season over in the worst way possible.
Until the end, I had no major quarrels with the officiating. Each team was whistled for just 12 fouls in the game. Heck, there were many games this year Auburn had 12 fouls in a half, so only 12 fouls for the game was pretty impressive for them. The officials let them play, until they didn’t, which makes the loss hard to swallow even now.
Auburn had every reason to be mad, upset at the end of that game. You heard some of the raw emotion early but the postgame news conferences spoke about the poise, the maturity of this basketball team. Bruce Pearl and company handled it with class, dignity, and a whole lot better than the fanbase did.
I’m still a bit heartbroken about it 11 days later because I know deep down that if Auburn would have won that game, they were going to win against whoever they played on Monday. They were going to be your National Champions. To know they were that close is something that even 11 days later, it’s still a bitter pill to swallow. I’ve come to accept it but I think about it multiple times every day. It was unchangeable then and it’s unchangeable now and for the guys coming back: the level of Unfinished Business they have now is multitudes greater than the Unfinished Business they had going into this year.
That game was the end of an era on multiple fronts: one, that game was the last Auburn basketball for me as a student but on a much grander scale, it’s the last time we’ll get to see many of these guys put on an Auburn uniform.
Bryce Brown: the school’s all-time 3-pointer leader, 2nd in SEC history (382) and most in a single season took off the Auburn for the final time after putting on a legendary performance the last 5 minutes of that game. Many people won’t remember more than the foul called late but don’t forget that Auburn trailed by 10 with 4:47 left and Bryce Brown hit a trio of 3s to give Auburn a chance to win that game.
Malik Dunbar: whose infectious smile and personality will be missed more than you know next year. He was always there to lighten the team’s mood and allow the team to relax and have fun. We’ll miss that guy next year. We’ll miss the dunks, and being able to just say #ClassicMalik.
Horace Spencer: who like Dunbar brought the team so much energy and heart, won’t play for Auburn again. I’ll never forget his game winning block against UAB in 2015, the first time I actually saw Auburn win a basketball game in person. I’ll also never forget the bloody face he had against Kentucky after a hard foul by P.J. Washington. Those images will never leave my mind. Spencer represented Auburn the way Auburn is supposed to be represented in every way and his leadership will be missed next year.
And then there’s Jared Harper who announced last Tuesday he’s entering his name in the NBA Draft and will most likely not be back next year. Jared Harper is the best PG in Auburn Basketball history and I hope they build a statue for him. He was the Quarterback of this team and when you needed a big shot from him, he made it.
To all the players, coaches, managers, support staff I say this: Thank you, each and every one of you for your contributions to Auburn Basketball.
To those that are moving on after this year: THANK YOU for elevating the program to where it is today. THANK YOU for leaving the future of Auburn Basketball in outstanding hands. THANK YOU for believing in the vision that Bruce Pearl set before you when he recruited you guys to come to Auburn. You guys will always be legends around here and nobody will ever forget you or this team.
Next year won’t be the same as I transition to watching and following this team more from a distance than I have while being here in Auburn. Next year starts in 202 days, not that I’m counting....
To close, it’s great to be an Auburn Tiger, and War Eagle, always!!