Terrell Brown steps to the free throw line. A 77 percent shooter, Brown will take three shots after being fouled on a three-point attempt with 1.1 seconds remaining, his New Mexico State team trailing Auburn 78-76 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. If he hits all three, the Aggies will eliminate the Tigers and end a 10-game string of NCAA heartbreak dating back to 1993.
Kyle Guy steps to the free throw line. An 83 percent shooter, Guy will take three shots after being fouled on a three-point attempt with .6 seconds remaining, his Virginia team trailing Auburn 62-60 in the Final Four. If he hits all three, the Cavaliers will eliminate the Tigers and advance to national championship for the first time in program history.
Let’s say we must pick one of these players to miss two of his three free throws, Auburn fans. But only one; the other hits all three. Do we even have to think about it?
We do not, because if Brown makes his, Guy never takes his at all. Auburn leaves its business unfinished. Bryce Brown, Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer leave with two SEC championships but only a single (fraught) NCAA win. For all his wizardry, Bruce Pearl must confront the fact that aside from his Vols’ 2010 Elite Eight run, he’s coached teams awarded 2, 5, 2, 9, 9, 4 and 5 seeds in the NCAAs to a combined 6-7 record and four defeats to lower seeds.
So we pick Brown. He misses two free throws, and Auburn survives. They run Kansas clean out of the gym. They catch their hottest fire at the best time against North Carolina, burying the top-seeded Tar Heels under a second-half threevalanche. They face Kentucky without their most talented player and best defender, but they hack and scratch and claw and fight like Tigers, and Jared Harper hits the layup he missed in January to send the game to overtime.
Then they go to the Final Four.
Auburn goes to the Final Four. Harper, and Brown, and McLemore, and Dunbar and Spencer and McCormick and Doughty and Purifoy and Wiley and Okeke — for whom the damn thing has been truly done — go to the Final Four.
It does not seem like a thing that could happen. This is Auburn men’s basketball. Even in the event of a Chuck Person-Chris Morris tag-team or a top-seeded Chris Porter hurricane or a swaggerific squadron of three-point bombers that can claim two SEC titles, other things happen. Kentucky hits their free throws. The threes against UNC don’t fall. Terrell Brown doesn’t miss.
But those things do not happen. This happens instead, somehow.
Auburn goes to the Final Four. And Kyle Guy goes to the line with .6 seconds left.
Forgive me: here is a poem by Jane Kenyon titled “Otherwise.”
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
It’s helped me feel better the past few days, but there’s a problem with saying end-of-game situations that go around against New Mexico State come around against Virginia. The two outcomes aren’t actually related. There’s not really any such thing as “karma.” See heads on four straight coinflips, and the fifth still isn’t any more likely to be tails.
There wasn’t any reason for Harper to miss his second free throw. It might have been otherwise. Big moment, nerves for everyone, but nonetheless: no reason the official couldn’t have risen to the occasion and recognized Jerome’s double-dribble. Might have been otherwise. No reason for Doughty’s contesting jump to bring him six-to-eight-inches closer to Guy than he intended. Might have been otherwise. For the love of everything holy, if he makes the shot he makes the shot just don’t make it so easy for him don’t send him the line anything but that please, please, PLEASE: let it be otherwise.
It was not. It wasn’t against North Carolina, either. Even if the New Mexico State escape did require some sort of balancing-act misfortune for Auburn, that debt should have been considered paid back in full, with interest, and a 20 percent tip, the moment Okeke went down.
Consider: without him, the Tigers played 92 combined minutes against North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia, the Nos. 7, 8 and 1 teams in the country, per Kenpom. Over those 92 minutes Auburn outscored the Tar Heels, Wildcats and Cavaliers by a total of 12 points. Even the post-Okeke Tigers proved themselves one of the best teams in the tournament, beyond a doubt.
So for me, this is also beyond a doubt: if Okeke remains healthy, Auburn wins the national championship. Bear in mind that before facing North Carolina, Okeke had played all 71 games of his Auburn career. No one in orange and blue should feel bad about shaking a fist at the sky and cursing the fates that unraveled things in the dying moments against Virginia. But I’d save our strongest fist-shaking and foulest fate-cursing for Chuma’s injury.
It might have been otherwise, dammit. After 71 games of health, what were the chances he couldn’t go just 3.2 more without getting hurt? Why couldn’t it have been otherwise? Why?
I’ve thought a lot about Terrell Brown since Saturday night. Some of that’s the parallels with Guy. A lot of it’s knowing that three weeks after our fandoms converged in Salt Lake City, there’s a bushel of New Mexico State diehards still asking the same questions I am.
The Aggies are a proud and well-supported program who would’ve celebrated beating Auburn with no less fervor than Auburn than enjoyed in beating North Carolina or Kentucky — hell, maybe more, given the agony of beating one’s head against the same first-round ceiling for 26 years. And finally, finally, the breakthrough had fallen into their hands. All they had to do was shoot better than 7-of-25 from three. They just had to hit a couple of free throws. They just needed Trevelin Queen to hit the open look at the buzzer.
You can hear the anguish all the way from Las Cruces: Why? Whyyyyyyyy?
The answer’s the same for the Aggies as it is for our Tigers as it is for the Boilermakers as it is for the Volunteers as it is for even the Blue Devils: this is the NCAA Tournament. This is the glory and terror of single-elimination college basketball. Most sports’ postseasons aim to give us the best team; the NCAA Tournament aims to give us the best games.
The stakes will be unfathomably high. The teams will be evenly matched. The score will be within a possession either way. And from the officials to the carom of the ball off the rim to how often a 77 percent free throw shooter misses two of three, those games will be decided by random fluctuations of chance. It’s awful. It’s incredible. It’s desperately unfair. It’s the best thing in American sports.
It’s why we’ll both spend the rest of our Auburn-supporting lives trying to reach through time and space to pull Doughty away from that contest — and highlight the text on double-dribbles in the zebras’ rulebooks — and come to peace with that defeat. The NCAA Tournament does not care at all. It would have been happy to send Auburn home after 40 minutes to empty oaks and a deserted Auburn Arena.
But it was otherwise.
The moment I’ll most treasure from Auburn’s NCAA run wasn’t much of a moment, if you’re just looking at the play-by-play. Down six with just under a minute remaining in overtime, Kentucky got the ball to Ashton Hagans. He drove on Brown but couldn’t get any separation, jumped expecting a passing target that wasn’t there, and flunga one-handed no-hoper at the rim. Doughty rebounded and was fouled with 48.4 seconds to play.
That’s when I believed Auburn men’s basketball could make a Final Four. Not for one glimmer of a second before, not really. Right then. I was seven when I cried because Pervis Ellison sent Auburn home one step short in 1986; I’m a Mike Gundy man now. At no point between then and Doughty’s rebound did this season seem possible. I can’t believe this is happening, I thought over and over again, because until then I could not.
That moment happening at all is one of the most satisfying, most joyful experiences I’ll ever have as an Auburn fan, as a person who cares about sports. That moment happening for this team, for this group of players…
… is a gift far too precious to waste by dwelling on the Virginia ending. Auburn basketball outplayed the national champions for 39 minutes and 59.4 seconds, without their most talented player, on the sport’s biggest stage, with both teams’ seasons on the line. Even before considering the rest of a March we’ll forever talk about the way we talk about Bo, and Cam, and November 2013, that performance alone is worth enough applause to drown out everything else.
Besides, no one wins their first Final Four. (Seriously: the last team to win a championship in their first national semifinals appearance was the “Glory Road” Texas Western team of 1966.) Contrary to an oft-cited maxim, you don’t win a Division I men’s basketball title by “getting hot for a month.” Ask the Cavaliers: you win a Division I men’s basketball title by building a program that can regularly make the NCAAs, earning a string of high seeds, and rolling the dice until the “get hot for a month” double-sixes appear.
This being the NCAA Tournament, though, sometimes even decades of those dice rolls aren’t enough. Kenyon’s last line is a worthwhile warning for Auburn fans: one day, I know, a Tigers team with the chance to do the same things this one did will face its own New Mexico State, and the next Terrell Brown will not miss.
But that line works the other way, too. Doughty pulled down that rebound. Auburn made the Final Four. Bruce Pearl is the Tigers’ coach. This team demanded we ask Why not us?, and for the first time I have no answer. Jared, Bryce, Malik, Chuma, Anfernee, J’Von, Samir, Danjel, Horace, Austin: thank you for changing everything.
Auburn basketball has never won a national title. One day, I believe, it will be otherwise.
Screenshot of video from @AuburnMBB, whose clips have been another reason this season was the absolute best