On Saturday evening, four fanbases converged on U.S. Bank Stadium to support their schools in the 2019 Men's NCAA Final Four. The first match-up featured a pair of teams looking to play for their first championship on Monday night, the Auburn Tigers and the Virginia Cavaliers.
Virginia (34-3, 16-2 ACC) escaped with a 63-62 victory over Auburn (30-11, 11-7 SEC) thanks to a late foul call on a 3-point shot. The back-and-forth game added another instant classic to what was already a thrilling NCAA Tournament.
"These last two games, oh my, how they ended" said Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. "I do feel for Auburn, but I feel better for us right now, and I'm just thankful these guys stepped up and played the way we needed to and got through."
Neither team gained any separation from the other in the first 20 minutes. Virginia was able to hold the Tigers scoreless for a four minutes stretch in the first half, meanwhile scoring eight points to build an 18-13 edge.
However, Auburn responded with an 11-4 run over the next four and a half minutes to pull ahead 24-22. With the score tied in the final minute of the half, junior Anfernee McLemore put the Tigers in front with a 3-pointer to make the score 31-28 at the break.
Despite not having sophomore Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL in the team's regional semifinal victory over North Carolina, Auburn's front court played well early. Okeke led the team's forwards in scoring and rebounding, but the Tigers still outscored Virginia in the paint 18-12 and out-rebounded them 20-14 in the first half.
That trend changed drastically in the second half when the Cavaliers outscored the Tigers 14-4 in the paint and out-rebounded them 17-13. Virginia came out of halftime on an 8-0 run but Auburn prevented it from scoring a field goal to tie the game up.
"Just like we have done all year long, even when we got down, there was still time on the clock," Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said, "There were still points to be scored, rebounds to be had and I thought our kids made a lot of plays."
The game of runs continued. With 5:22 to go, Virginia looked like it was in control, up 57-47, but then the Tigers came roaring back, thanks to some timely 3-pointers from senior Bryce Brown. Auburn looked certain to advance to the title game, up two points in the final seconds before Virginia junior Kyle Guy was fouled shooting a 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left.
"I didn't think it was a foul," Brown said. "But the refs thought otherwise. Can't go back and rewind it."
Before Guy stepped to the line, the Cavaliers went 3-9 in free throws, but he calmly knocked down all three shots to send his team to the title game, capping off another dramatic victory for Virginia, who defeated Purdue 80-75 in overtime in the Regional Final.
"These are the moments that every basketball player has dreamed of," Guy said. "To be able to go to the National Championship off that for these guys and coach Bennett, I really don't have the words."
Junior Ty Jerome led Virginia in points (21) and rebounds (9). Guy scored 15 points and sophomore De'Andre Hunter added 14, both scoring 10 in the second half. For Auburn, junior Samir Doughty scored a team-high 13 points. Brown was close behind with 12 points while McLemore pulled a game-high 12 rebounds.
The Cavaliers will now advance to the program's first title game on Monday night, taking on the winner of Michigan State and Texas Tech.