Over the course of a career, a basketball player stands at the free throw line in his driveway, in a park on an asphalt court late at night, in the gym early in the morning, almost always by himself, and shoots hundreds of free throws, thousands of free throws, a countless number of free throws.
Each time, he tells himself he has to make two or three to win the game. Each time, he dribbles, takes a deep breath and shoots.
Some players don’t leave, no matter how long it takes, until they’ve made those shots in what they are pretending is a pressure situation.
But it isn’t a pressure situation. There is no way to replicate the pressure of having a game, a season, a career at stake until the player is standing at the line by himself in a game with all those things at stake.
And in this case, Kyle Guy stood at the line for the Virginia Cavaliers, six-tenths of a second left in the game, Auburn leading 62-60 with a berth in the national championship game hanging in the balance.
Guy had been fouled on a last-second, desperation attempt to make a 3-point shot from the corner off what could have been Virginia’s last inbounds play of the season.
Now, as he stood at the foul line, his teammates were gathered behind him at midcourt. The Auburn players lined up along the foul lane and there were about 70,000 people in U.S. Bank Stadium, watching in silence, some holding their collective breathes.
Others stood with their eyes closed, waiting for the reaction of those around them let them know whether look up an smile for joy or keep their eyes closed to fight back tears.
“Those are moments every basketball player dreams of,” Guy said.
Immediately after the game, Guy said in a television interview he could lie and say he knew he was going to make all three, but that, really, he was terrified.
Later, after he had composed himself, Guy said, “Kind of had that feeling in your stomach, like a good kind of nervousness, like, ‘All right, this is my chance.’
“To be able to go to the national championship off that, with these guys and coach Bennett, I mean, I really don’t have the words.”
Guy had sprung open on a screen set by De’Andre Hunter. The pass came from Ty Jerome. The shot missed, but official’s hand immediately was in the air, signalling a foul had been committed by Samir Doughty.
Auburn led 62-60. The officials checked the video monitor and put 0.6 seconds on the clock.
For Virginia and Guy, it was a matter of making two free throws to force overtime or three to give Virginia the lead and, in all probability, a victory.
Guy stepped to the line. He dribbled once, just has he has done hundreds of times, thousands of times, countless times by himself, and shot.
The official handed Guy the ball.
One dribble. Shot. Swish.
Auburn called timeout.
While the Virginia players gathered around coach Tony Bennett, Guy walked almost aimlessly around the perimeter of his teammates.
He asked for a towel. He walked a bit more.
“I didn’t want anything to do with my teammates or coaches,” 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.”
No one said a word to Guy. No one signaled for him to join the huddle. Everyone knew the stakes. Either the game went into overtime or the Cavaliers went to the championship game of the Final Four.
Guy went back to the foul line. The Auburn players lined the lane. The official handed Guy the ball.
The 6-foot-2 junior dribbled once and shot.
Virginia 63, Auburn 62. Sixth-tenths of a second later, the game was over, and Virginia, which lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2018, had made it to the last game of the 2019 tournament.
“To make those three free throws was terrific,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
Terrific? That’s the best you’ve got? Terrific?
Guy had not been to the free throw line all night. A season, a chance to play for the national championship, and for Guy, shots he would remember rest of his life, either with lasting regret or everlasting pride, hung in the balance.
“Sorry that wasn’t a strong enough word,” Bennett said. “Amazing. Spectacular. Is that good enough? I don’t have many more. I didn’t graduate from Virginia, so my vocabulary is limited.”
Yeah, those will do because considering the circumstances, considering all Virginia has invested in this season, terrific, amazing and spectacular is exactly what those shots were.