Virginia’s comeback win over Auburn on Saturday in the Final Four was, in many ways, defined by a referee’s whistle, as Kyle Guy took advantage of a foul call on a three-point attempt with less than a second left and made all three free throws to give his Cavaliers a 63-62 win.
However, it was the whistle that wasn’t blown moments before when Virginia’s Ty Jerome appeared to commit a double dribble that loomed large over the result, which sent the Cavaliers to their first national championship game Monday night.
With Virginia down by two points with seven seconds left, Jerome got the ball and dribbled upcourt. However, before he reached midcourt, the junior guard lost control of the ball off his leg as he tried to go behind his back, and he grabbed it with both hands before resuming his dribble.
That should have resulted in a whistle for double dribble, especially as an official was watching the play from behind Jerome, just a few feet away. However, he and the rest of the officiating crew let the action continue, and instead of Auburn getting the ball back with three seconds left it intentionally fouled Jerome, setting up Guy’s desperation shot.
The referees weren’t the only ones who apparently did not notice the double dribble when it happened — CBS’s announcing team also missed it, and only after the game ended did Jim Nantz and his telecast partners engage in a discussion of the play.
CBS had a former NCAA and NFL referee, Gene Steratore, on hand to analyze just such situations, and he confirmed that, at least in his view, Auburn should have gotten the ball after Jerome’s gaffe. In that scenario, the Tigers would have been in excellent position to win the game, up by two and in possession with approximately three seconds left, but Auburn was left to ponder an extraordinarily painful defeat.
For his part, Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl, who was visibly outraged at the foul call that sent Guy to the line, took the high road when asked later about that and the no-call on Jerome. “Auburn is going to handle this defeat with class, just like we would have handled it in victory,” he told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson shortly after the game. “Virginia’s a great team and, you know, it’s a 40-minute game, and so we’ll look at a lot of other plays we could have made to turn the outcome.”
Pearl went on to note that his Tigers were down by 10 points with just over five minutes left before storming back to take a lead, and he said, “I’m very proud of this basketball team.” Others, though, were less diplomatic, including ESPN’s Dick Vitale, who tweeted that an “obvious” double dribble call “was missed,” adding, “What a gut-wrenching way to lose for Auburn.”
At the same time, all the slow-motion videos of Jerome’s double dribble that spread around the Internet Saturday allowed more than a few observers to point out that, just before the Cavaliers guard lost control of the ball, he was arguably fouled when Auburn’s Bryce Brown grabbed his jersey. Had a whistle been blown at that moment, there would not have been a double dribble to miss.
That certainly was the opinion of Jerome, who said after the game, “I think the ref missed a foul call. They [the Tigers] were giving fouls on purpose, and [Brown] grabbed me. I lost the ball. The ref let that foul go, so how’s he going to call double dribble?”
Brown was initially blunt in his assessment of the loss, yelling as his team headed toward the locker room, “NCAA needs to get some new refs!” Later, as he sat at his locker, he expressed regret for that assertion, telling reporters, “I was caught up in the moment. I just didn’t agree with that one call.”
Brown was referring to the foul that benefited Guy, which was called on Auburn’s Samir Doughty, about whom the NCAA declared that the Tigers player “moved into the airborne shooter, making contact with Guy while taking away his landing spot.”
That call also sparked plenty of back-and-forth online, with some saying that it was the right call while others argued that even if that were technically the case, it shouldn’t have been made in that situation, particularly at the end of a game in which officials had allowed physical defense throughout.
The NCAA did not offer a similar comment on the lack of a whistle for Jerome’s double dribble, leaving it for everyone else to discuss. The general controversy over the officiating overshadowed, to some degree, not only Guy’s heroics, including a crucial three-pointer with under nine seconds left and his team down four, but those of Jerome.
Before his dribbling error, Jerome posted 21 points, which led all players, and added nine rebounds, six assists and a block. The 6-5 player from New Rochelle, N.Y., had a hugely positive overall impact for Virginia, and he boosted his stock as a possible first-round pick in June’s NBA draft.
As to why no one seemed to notice the double dribble when it happened, Steratore said on CBS’s postgame show (via Awful Announcing), “It’s very unusual. I think what happens most times, when you have a deflection off a back heel or something, that basketball goes a lot further than just a bounce or two away from your body. So I think for that reason, and as we watched it in live action, it didn’t jump off the screen at any of us."
“That’s such a bang-bang play, how’s the referee supposed to see that he kicked the ball, instead of our guy touching it?” Auburn assistant coach Steven Pearl, Bruce Pearl’s son, said after the game. “So that’s a tough one. … It’s just one of those things you’ve got to deal with.”
Pearl also pointed to other plays his team could have made before that sequence, including a missed free throw with seven seconds left, that might have altered the outcome and continued Auburn’s impressive run through the NCAA tournament, which featured wins over Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky and the program’s first Final Four appearance.
Virginia, meanwhile, moves on to face Texas Tech for what would be either school’s first national title in men’s basketball. The Red Raiders ousted Michigan State, 61-51, in Saturday’s other, less controversial, national semifinal.
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