MINNEAPOLIS – Kyle Guy generally avoided anyone on the Virginia sidelines while the officials checked the clock. He knew that three critical free throws awaited him with his team down by two. At the Final Four. In front of 72,711 fans.
Guy did, however, scan the Virginia fan section for a friendly face.
“I was trying to look for Alexa [Jenkins, my fiancee] and I couldn’t see her because she’s too short so I saw my dad,” Guy said. “We made eye contact and he said ‘You got this’ and I said ‘Yeah, I know I do.’”
And with that, Guy calmly walked out on the U.S. Bank Stadium floor and made all three free throws to push UVA past Auburn, 63-62, and into the program’s first National Championship Game. He looked stone faced and confident on all three shots, even after Auburn called a timeout between the final two attempts to try to break his rhythm and concentration with hopes of overtime.
As much confidence as Guy had in himself in that situation, his teammates and coaches matched it. They left him alone on the sidelines in order to let him focus, but they also knew he didn’t really need a pep talk at that moment.
“Once I heard that whistle and they reviewed and Kyle was shooting three free throws, I was pretty darn confident,” UVA’s Ty Jerome said.
“I mean Kyle’s one of the best shooters on the team so we’re not worried about him,” Virginia’s Braxton Key said. “He shoots hundreds of shots every day, hundreds of free throws a day so we knew he was going to make them.”
“He’s focused. He’s locked in. He was in the moment. He was living in that moment,” Wahoo Associate Head Coach Jason Williford said. “Something deep down inside me knew he’d knock that down. We left him alone and we coached the other guys.”
“He was kind of distant and didn’t want to be too close to anyone, but we were confident in him,” Cavalier forward De’Andre Hunter said. “I know Kyle was confident he was going to make them. You don’t need to talk to somebody like that in that moment. They already know it’s a lot of pressure so you don’t need to add any more to it.”
Like many players, Guy had lived that moment many times on courts far away from the Final Four. He’d imagined game-winning moments and incredible shots with him in the spotlight before and now the moment had arrived. He retreated to his own mind at U.S. Bank Stadium too.
“I didn’t want to have anything to do with my teammates or coaches at that time,” Guy said. “I just wanted to be in my own space. I knew they had confidence in me; I just needed to build up my own. And we all practiced those shots as a kid. They were probably a little bit more spectacular than free throws, but whatever it takes to win.”
How Guy ended up in that situation came from Virginia’s usual arsenal. With an inbounds play coming on the left side, the Cavaliers turned to an inbounds play they have used throughout Tony Bennett’s tenure, including as recently as the Elite Eight game with Purdue. The play includes a look with Guy peeling back toward the ball side corner for a catch-and-shoot opportunity.
While there are other options on that play, Hunter and Mamadi Diakite joked after the game that the play is called “Kyle get open.” Jerome said he knew in the back of his mind that Guy was going to be one that came open to get the ball.
“It’s just an action that we run, and Ty said, you know, if it’s open, you’re coming, and make that thing, I think,” Bennett said. “He had hit a great shot the previous play. Again, I haven’t seen the replay, but someone said they did get in his space and pushed him. But then to make the three free throws is terrific. You just keep playing.”
Guy made sure he was behind the line on the catch and rose without hesitation when Samir Doughty tried to crowd his space. Doughty’s momentum in chasing Guy, however, carried him forward and he made contact below the waist as Guy released the ball. There was no delay from the baseline official, who immediately raised his hand to signal the foul call.
On the other end of the stadium, Auburn’s fans reacted with such noise that not everyone in the building knew a foul had been called, but UVA’s players said they heard the whistle and knew that Guy would be going to the free throw line. Guy felt like he didn’t have space to land and immediately turned his focus to the free throw line once he heard the sound of the whistle.
“I heard him call it right away,” Guy said. “They were asking me did I know, because I put my hand – my face into my jersey, but that was me focusing. I knew they called a foul. I knew that I got behind the line for three shots because I practiced that. I just literally told myself that we dream of these moments, and to be able to make one happen was special.”
Well, more than one actually. Virginia trailed by four points at 61-57 with 17.6 remaining when it looked to Guy the first time in the final seconds. He came off a screen toward the opposite corner, hesitated briefly to gather himself, and let a 3-pointer fly that cut the lead to one with 6.5 seconds to go. Prior to the three free throws and that made 3-pointer, Guy had made just 4 of 10 shots and 1 of 5 3-pointers.
Still, everything that happened before those final moments steeled Guy’s nerves. A little more than a year before, of course, UVA’s season ended in historic fashion when the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. On that night, Guy hunched over with his hands on his knees and started crying as UMBC players celebrated wildly around him in Charlotte.
Photographers captured that moment with Guy in despair and the Retrievers leaping with joy in the background. He made it the background on his phone and his Twitter avatar. He taped it up in his room. Guy battled anxiety and said he had to live through death threats and hate mail. He eventually made that struggle public with a pair of Facebook posts and a lengthy article with SB Nation.
All of that led Guy through this season and to that free throw line in Minneapolis. Afterward, after he had made those free throws and soaked in the moment with his teammates and Wahoo fans, he still couldn’t put it into words what had happened or really how it felt.
“I don’t really have the words for how I feel,” Guy said. “I really don’t. I’ve been pinching myself the whole time I’ve been in Minneapolis because it doesn’t really feel real, but I’m just so happy right now.”