This is why we love sports, and why we loathe them.
Why we find them so exciting, and why we find them so exasperating.
Why we never want to stop watching, and why we swear never to again.
The human element always has been part of it. So, too, has human flaw.
So, too — and you can make just as much an argument as to why Virginia will play for the national basketball championship and Auburn won’t — has human boldness.
Cavaliers 63, Tigers 62.
Man, it had all of the above and more.
It was a foul.
Read that again.
It was a foul.
The whistle came late, and first-time Final Four official James Breeding sure didn’t sell it with the authority all 72,711 in U.S. Bank Stadium and those watching elsewhere would have preferred, but the call that led to Virginia advancing in the first semifinal game Saturday was correct.
That, and should the Cavaliers finish their implausible run from becoming the first No. 1 seed to fall to a 16 and win the title a year later by beating Texas Tech on Monday night, it will be considered the biggest whistle in NCAA Tournament history.
“This is the plan, handle the defeat with dignity and class,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said of his postgame speech to his players. “Give the opponent credit. We didn’t focus on (the call). We focused on how we were going to handle the defeat at Auburn, with class and dignity. There are lots of calls during the game, and you’re going to get some and some you’re not going to get.”
They didn’t get one with 0.6 seconds remaining. Auburn had erased a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes to lead by one. Virginia junior Kyle Guy was rising from the corner beyond the 3-point line with Tigers junior Samir Doughty guarding him.
They didn’t get it because Doughty came under Guy and bumped his hip.
It was a foul. Ticky. Tacky. Touch. Doesn’t matter.
Doughty, as an NCAA statement explained afterward, “moved into the airborne shooter, making contact with Guy while taking away his landing spot.”
Guy made all three free throws — pretty impressive execution given the moment — and Virginia survived.
“I knew they called a foul,” Guy said. “I just told myself that we dream of these moments, and to be able to make one happen was special.”
Forget the foul on Doughty. Seconds before, a clear double dribble on Virginia guard Ty Jerome was missed. He dribbled off his foot, picked up the ball and dribbled again. Obvious infraction. And the officials froze.
If they make the call, Auburn inbounds the ball and probably wins.
Ref dealt with worse
Breeding sells insurance for a living when he’s not officiating. His father died in 2008 when he was calling a game and was told about it in the locker room afterward. Three months later, his son was born with a heart defect and underwent surgery a week later.
He has dealt with things much tougher than a critical call in the Final Four.
And when he had to, he made it.
You’re going to hear again about swallowing whistles, about letting guys play at the end of games, about there being times when officials should disappear, about the same old arguments against what occurred.
Then have someone take a sharpie to the rulebook and block out all the calls that shouldn’t be considered at specific times in a game. Let officials know exact moments when and when not to make calls.
If not, it’s a foul.
The human element?
Pearl spoke about his team handling the loss with class, and nobody personified those wishes more than Doughty, the transfer from Virginia Commonwealth who answered every last question with incredible grace about being the one who made contact with a shooter with 0.6 seconds left in the national semifinals and his team leading by one.
“I didn’t feel contact. I didn’t think I fouled him, but … the refs thought otherwise,” Doughty said. “I trust their decision, man, all the time. That’s why they’re reffing the Final Four. They’re going do the job the best they can. The referees don’t try to tell me how to put a basketball in the hole, so I’m not going to tell them how to make the right or wrong call. I will definitely watch the replay of it, and if it’s a foul, it’s a foul.
“(Virginia) was the better team. We lost to a great opponent.”
This is why we love sports, or should, because in the most crushing of moments, the weight of such anguish and disappointment sitting on the shoulders of a young man who feels as though his world has fallen apart, we get that answer.
It was a foul, as exasperating as it will make so many feel.
Incredible and incredulous, brilliant and brutal, memorable and misgiving all at once.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.