MINNEAPOLIS — Horace Spencer wants to remember singing and rapping with his teammates. He wants to remember the Hibachi dinners they ate. He wants to remember the smiles on their faces when they won SEC tournament and Midwest Region championships, the latter of which was displayed in a photo that hung in the locker room Saturday night in stark contrast to the mood of the team.
Horace Spencer does not want to remember the last shot, the one that Kyle Guy got fouled on, the one that ultimately lifted Virginia to a 63-62 win over Auburn in a national semifinal.
“Yeah, we were sad in here,” the senior said, “but I see nothing but smiles and happy faces in my mind right now.”
That can be difficult in the aftermath of a loss like the one the Tigers suffered Saturday, which was their first in a span of 41 days. They came to Minneapolis unwavering in their quest to win two more games and a national championship. For a split second, they thought they had won the first. So too did legions of fans watching back home at Toomer’s Corner.
They saw Guy miss his attempt at a go-ahead 3, and they saw the clock his 0.0. They just didn’t hear the referee whistle for a foul against Samir Doughty.
“I thought we won it,” head coach Bruce Pearl said. “The horn went off. I saw the shot miss. I saw the officials kind of looking at each other. I thought it was over, but it obviously wasn’t.”
It was not the ending Auburn wanted, but it does not take away from all it accomplished during a 2018-19 season that will go down as the best in the program’s 113-year existence.
The Tigers won 30 games, which is the highest single-season total in program history. They won an SEC tournament championship for the first time since 1985. They made a second straight NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 1999-2000, reached the round of 16 for the first time since 2003, reached the regional finals for the first time since 1986 and reached the Final Four for the first time.
They did it all after suffering a humiliating and humbling 27-point loss at Kentucky on Feb. 23, bouncing back from that defeat with a 12-game winning streak that was the longest active in the nation until it ended Saturday night. They beat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky — the three winningest programs in college basketball history — by 14, 17 and six points, respectively, in a span of nine days along the way.
"We went through a lot of adversity,” senior guard Bryce Brown said. “There's been a lot of times we could have given up as a team, and the season could have went downhill easily.”
It could have happened in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Auburn actually faced a similar situation against New Mexico State, when Bryce Brown fouled Terrell Brown on a 3-point attempt with the Tigers up two and set him to the free throw line with only seconds remaining. But whereas Guy made all three, Brown missed two, and teammate Trevelin Queen’s attempt at a go-ahead 3 from the left corner at the buzzer sailed wide of the mark. No foul.
It could have happened again in the Elite Eight. Auburn lost star sophomore forward Chuma Okeke to a torn ACL in the second half of a Sweet 16 win over North Carolina and was going up against the same Kentucky team that won in a rout five weeks earlier. The Tigers defeated the Wildcats without him and very nearly did the same to the Cavaliers.
They were counted out almost every step of the way, and still, until Saturday, they continued to win.
“Ask Duke, ask North Carolina — it’s really hard to get here. It’s not easy,” assistant coach Steven Pearl said. “It says a lot about the kids that we have in this locker room.”
Those kids will return home to the Plains with broken hearts and shattered national championship dreams. But that one loss doesn’t take away from all they accomplished this season.
“We made history. We did something no Auburn team has ever done before,” senior Malik Dunbar said. “I still wish we could have brought that ‘ship back to Auburn.”