The reaction in the Clougherty home in north Raleigh was initially the same as it was around the world when James Breeding’s extended hand turned to a fist. John Clougherty, the Hall of Fame referee, said “Wow!” like everyone else as he watched on television.
And then something happened that could only happen in that living room: His wife Dorothy turned to him and told him he was off the hook.
Until Saturday night, Clougherty was the last referee to make a controversial call that decided a Final Four game, whistling Seton Hall’s Gerald Greene for a reach-in with four seconds left in overtime, sending Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson to the line to win the national title in 1989.
But when Breeding whistled Auburn’s Samir Doughty for fouling Kyle Guy with .6 seconds to go, sending Guy to the line for three free throws, Clougherty had company.
“I thought about it,” said Clougherty, who co-hosts the N&O podcast The Whistleblowers. “It was brief.”
Guy’s three free throws turned a two-point Virginia deficit into a 63-62 win, a final plot twist to trump the final few minutes, when Virginia turned a 10-point lead into that two-point deficit, starting when Cavaliers guard Ty Jerome picked up his fourth foul on a silly play under the basket.
As Auburn came storming back, the Cavaliers were forced to contemplate a loss as devastating as the UMBC upset in its own way, a game they controlled thrown away in a most un-Virginia-like fashion. Auburn had fouls to give in the final seconds, and used them. (Jerome even got away with a double dribble after dribbling off his own foot.) Which left Virginia inbounding with 1.5 seconds to go, trying to get the ball to Guy for a prayer of a 3-pointer.
As Guy hung in the air, Auburn’s Samir Doughty ran at him, bumping into Guy’s right leg. The debate will last forever, but Breeding didn’t hesitate. (Another official, Doug Sirmons, called the foul as well.)
“This one was more obvious than the one I made, I really believe that,” Clougherty said. “This one was a clear foul. He gets up under his legs while the guy was airborne. To me it was an obvious foul.”
Guy, the player Virginia would want on that line forever and ever, made all three free throws.
It went from the worst possible way Virginia could lose to the worst possible way Auburn could lose.
And for the fourth time in five years, an ACC team will play for a national title, and in this case, the one everyone doubted could win in March is the last one standing in April.
What Breeding will go through now, only Clougherty knows. Thirty years ago, he was savaged in the New York media, saved only by the grace of Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo, who steadfastly defended Clougherty after the game.
An Asbury Park Press article about the game this week quoted Greene saying Clougherty told him at the time he got the call wrong, which Clougherty denies. But he doesn’t deny having sleepless nights.
“I’m in transition, I see contact, I think it’s enough,” said Clougherty, who worked 12 Final Fours. “I blow the whistle. It was a hard night. A hard couple weeks. But I was dealing with a coach who thought I was a pretty good referee and he made some comments that helped me out.”
Thirty years later, Clougherty is off the hook. And Virginia is playing for a national title.