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It didn’t seem to matter which team Virginia was facing, or how hopeless the Cavaliers’ situation looked, there was no way to prevent them from winning the NCAA championship in a more spectacular Final Four than the NCAA could have envisioned.
They put record crowds of over 70,000 into the Vikings U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and all four Final Four entries lived up to the enormous hype overload. The Cavaliers, apparently still stinging from becoming the first No. 1 NCAA seed to lose to a No. 16 one year earlier, had gotten to the Final Four by sneaking past Purdue in an overtime South final only when Purdue failed to convert a rim-high feed for a 2-inch shot in the final second of regulation.
Once in Minneapolis, the Cavaliers came through in spectacular fashion to beat Auburn — which had knocked off Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in order to make it — in as crazy a finish as you can concoct. In that semifinal, Auburn had it won, but two officials calls turned the game in Virginia’s favor. A last-second pass to Kyle Guy in the left corner gave him one final chance. He jumped (or, as the broadcasters said, over and over, he “elevated”) and let fly. The ball got up and away, over a leaping Auburn defender, but it was woefully short. The Auburn defender made a heroic effort to avoid fouling, and he didn’t touch Guy, from the waist up. But when he landed, Guy bumped him, hip to hip, so the officials were correct in calling a foul because you have to give an airborne shooter room to land.
Trailing by two, Guy went to the line with something like a half-second left and calmly made one, two, three free throws. He got three because he was shooting a 3. And his free throws gave Virginia a one point victory. I have no quarrel with the ref’s call, except that there were probably 50 incidents of far greater contact that knocked players to the floor that went uncalled, and if the officials had not called that foul, Virginia — and even Guy — probably would not have complained. And Auburn would have been in the championship game.
The television crew did a fantastic job, and it was they who spotted Virginia guard Ty Jerome dribbling the ball up the court and accidentally bouncing the ball off his own heel in mid-dribble. He whirled around and grabbed the ball with both hands before standing up. Then he started dribbling again. The announcers pointed out that once you grab the ball with both hands, your dribble has ended, and starting to dribble again was a double dribble. Obviously, had that ball possession gone to Auburn, Auburn would have advanced to the final. But nobody called it. The refs didn’t notice, and apparently neither did the Auburn staff..
Texas Tech, meanwhile, eliminated Michigan State by stifling the Spartans and building a 10-point lead, only to have to have a fierce finish to hold off MSU after a closing rally eliminated that lead.
All the so-called experts predicted a low-scoring war in the final, with a score that might see both teams in the 40s. Instead, both teams played fantastic defense, but only Texas Tech went cold, while Virginia was sizzling hot. With 10 minutes left in the second half, Virginia led 53-43, Then the Texas Tech Red Raiders made an amazing rally, Depending on two guys who came in off the bench to provide the offense, the Red Raiders caught up and took a lead of 66-65, then 68-65, but De’Andre Hunter connected on a 3-point shot from the right corner and it was 68-68.
Texas Tech missed a shot and Virginia got the ball. Hunter tried to throw a pass to Guy, who had pulled up and called for a time out as the ball bounced past him and out of bounds. One second remained on the clock and the Red Raiders had a final chance to win before overtime. But the Cavaliers came up with not one but two key blocks on baseline shots and the clock ran out.
It was sad to watch the overtime, however, because the Red Raiders appeared to run out of gas, right after a video review correctly led to an overturned possession when Virginia led 75-73. Davide Moretti was leading a Texas Tech fast break when Hunter reached in and swatted the ball away. It bounced out of bounds and the call was to give the ball to Texas Tech. Three video angles appeared to verify the call, but a fourth indicated that when Hunter hit the ball, it grazed Moretti’s little finger on its way out of bounds. The reversed the call. It was 75-73 at that moment, and the Cavaliers scored the next six to make it 81-73, completing a streak of 11 straight points by Virginia. From there to the finish, Texas Tech threw up a series of desperation bricks, while the Cavaliers ruined the predictable Texas Tech strategy of fouling, hurriedly and often, by simply stepping to the line and pouring in their free throws.
The Cavaliers were 12-for-12 on free throws in overtime, while Texas Tech was 0-for-0. Hunter scored a career high 27 points to lead Virginia, with 22 of them in the second half, when he singlehandedly prevented the Texas Tech surge from obliterating Virginia’s hopes. Guy had 24.
It was an exhausting week, and Virginia was a deserving champion, taking advantage of every opportunity from large to miniscule. And Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota came away with “A” for a grade for the whole production and hospitality.
Meanwhile, Wild run out of NHL time
The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs have started, without our Minnesota Wild. Everyone is predicting more changes and analyzing their demise, but their failure to make the 16-team field can best be summed up in three words: Dumba, Koivu, Parise. Key injuries took out Dumba and Koivu at midseason, taking away the NHL’s was-scoring defenseman, and the Wild captain and top-line centerman, while Parise, the team’s top scorer, went out only briefly, but it was for about three weeks right in the midst of the final stretch drive.
The analysts can’t figure out why the Wild didn’t; win enough, or score enough. The two are related. If you add the dynamic rushes of Dumba, the teamwork, forechecking pressure and defensive reliability of Koivu and his top winger, Parise, the Wild might have made it.
Also, think of this: What do the Wild have in common with Montreal, Chicago, Edmonton, Philadelphia, and the New York Rangers? None of them — none — made the playoffs! It is a blessing that the Wild braintrust has decided to retain Bruce Boudreau as coach to lead the Wild to a recovery that might be as close as the return to full health of Koivu and Dumba.
My long-range prediction is that the panic-trade of Mikhail Granlund to Nashville will prove to be a valuable piece in the jigsaw puzzle that will push the Nashville Predators to the Stanley Cup. There are other great teams in the mix. Virtually any of the 16 could do it. Tampa Bay, Washington, San Jose, Calgary…But in my mind, Nashville is the most exciting and the most entertaining team to watch. Watch them, and my guess is you might have a couple months to watch them.