The Final 4 run changed the basketball program at Auburn forever. It also changed the course of basketball in the state of Alabama forever.
Auburn lost in the most crushing fashion possible against No. 1 seed Virginia in Minneapolis last Saturday night. The Tigers led by four points with eight seconds remaining. Let that sink in. A four-point lead with eight seconds remaining in a game that would decide who would play for the national championship.
A clutch 3-pointer by Virginia’s Kyle Guy cut the lead to 1. If that very tough shot does not go in, Auburn wins by four. There would have been no late-game drama to talk about except the fact that Auburn stormed back from a 10-point deficit with five minutes remaining to reach the national championship game.
But the shot did go in. Then Auburn’s Jared Harper, who had made 18 free throws in a row, missed the second of two tries to keep the Auburn lead at 62-60. The final 7.4 seconds will live in Final 4 infamy. Auburn’s Bryce Brown may have intentionally fouled Ty Jerome near midcourt, but there was no call. Jerome most definitely double-dribbled while being pressured by Brown, but again, no call. Finally, a foul was called on Brown, setting up the dramatic finish.
Guy missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, which would have been the end of the game. Then came these words from CBS play-by-play maestro Jim Nance: “Hold on. Hold on. Did I hear a whistle? The Auburn fans thought it was over.”
Nance was referring to the fans in the stadium, because he didn’t yet have access to the live cameras at Toomer’s Corner recording hundreds of fans storming the area to begin yet another celebration of Auburn basketball.
The foul call was a good one. It would have been the right call in the first minute of the game or the last.
Guy stepped up to make all three pressure-packed free throws and the magical Auburn run of 2019 was over.
Auburn won 30 games, won the SEC Tournament, went further in the NCAA Tournament than any state team in history and beat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in succession along the way.
But that explanation of the spectacular Auburn season is too simplistic.
This Auburn team is, for now, the best team in state history. But it will forever be the most important basketball team in state history.
Gone forever are the excuses that this is just a football state, so it’s unrealistic to think teams from Alabama can compete with the blue bloods of college basketball. Auburn not only stood toe-to-toe with those blue bloods — the Tigers eliminated the three winningest programs in college basketball history. Except for the excruciating finish against Virginia, they may well have won the entire tournament.
There was much discussion among Alabama fans about whether they should cheer for or against Auburn as the Tigers went on their historic run. Alabama Heisman Trophy running back Mark Ingram left no doubt where he stood when he posted this on Twitter before the Final 4: “I see anybody that went to Bama, let alone PLAYED for Bama, rooting for Auburn today you getting blocked.”
I love what Ingram posted, and here’s why.
Certainly not all, but most football fans in this state would have the same reaction as Ingram if their rival was playing for the national football championship. I have friends who still wear “Roll Ducks” shirts in support of Auburn’s opponent in the 2010 national championship game. I have friends who are Auburn fans who congratulated each other and celebrated when Clemson beat Alabama in the national championship game three months ago.
Most of us accept that behavior because it’s football. It’s not life or death. It’s more serious than that.
But basketball? Isn’t it a nice story that our rival is putting together a tournament run?
It shouldn’t be a nice story for rival fans, unless you’re the kind of fan who cheers for all state teams all the time.
Because of these Auburn Tigers, it won’t be a nice story any longer. Starting today, basketball in the state of Alabama is a serious endeavor. That’s because Bruce Pearl and his inspiring players proved that winning at the highest level can take place at a football school and in a football state.
The next step is for Alabama to be both a football state and a basketball state. We aren’t there yet, but we’re a million miles closer thanks to these awesome Auburn Tigers.
Let that be their legacy, not what happened in the crazy, final 10 seconds of the Final 4.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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