You might have missed the best story of March Madness this year. No, it wasn’t Virginia’s story of redemption, as good as that was. It was a story about losing.
By now, you have heard about the newly crowned NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champions at the University of Virginia. Last year, they became the first number one seed to lose to the number 16 seed when they were blown out 74-54 by the heavy underdog University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC). It was an unprecedented and shocking defeat.
To return a year later, with mostly the same roster of players, and win the national championship is a terrific story of redemption. You’ve heard that story already.
But have you heard the story of the Auburn Tigers? And their coach Bruce Pearl?
Auburn made the Final Four and played Virginia in a terrific back-and-forth game. Auburn clung to a narrow two-point lead with just seconds to go in the game. That’s when things got crazy.
The referees missed a critical double dribble violation against Virginia and then whistled Auburn’s Samir Doughty for a crucial, game-defining foul on a three-point attempt. Virginia’s Kyle Guy stepped up to the free throw line, knocked down all three free throws, and Virginia advanced to the championship game with a 63-62 victory.
This was an outrage! How could the refs decide this game?? That foul call! The double dribble!! Auburn fans across the country felt cheated, betrayed, denied their rightful opportunity. Even other college coaches weighed in, mostly conceding the foul call was fair, but pointing to the missed double dribble violation as a complete game changer.
So what did Bruce Pearl, the Auburn coach, have to say? Did he cry out in righteous indignation? Did he call for reform of the rules? To use video review at the end of the game? Did he demand that the refs to be fired for their mistakes?
No, his response was far different. Here are his words on ESPN’s Get Up!
The biggest point I want to make, and I’m sincere in this, I’m not just saying this because it’s politically the right thing to say. There is human error involved in the game. Kids make mistakes, coaches make mistakes. Yes, officials will make mistakes. That’s part of the game. Get over it.
Sometimes they’re going to go your way, sometimes they’re not going to go your way. Are we going to give God less glory because we lost and … only because we win? Stop. Grow up, this is part of the game. These kids taught us, I think, in many, many ways how to handle defeat. And that’s a difficult thing to do for these young kids. And I’m proud of them.
Wow. We could end this right there. Those words should be hung in locker rooms across the country. A perfect example of graciousness in defeat, and a sense of perspective about what sports are really all about.
Human error is unavoidable in life, and that certainly holds true on the basketball court. Sure, the refs made an error by not calling the double dribble, but Virginia’s Jerome also made an error by double dribbling in the first place. The last second foul call was controversial, but Auburn’s Doughty jumped towards a shooter, a highly risky move in such a close game.
Forget about error, can we also celebrate skill? How about Virginia’s Kyle Guy stepping up to the free throw line with the game hanging in the balance and knocking down all three shots? He could have missed two and lost the game.
You play the game to win, there is no denying that. But there has to be something bigger than winning, otherwise what is the point? Only one team wins each year, which leaves a whole lot of losers.
Sports is about more than winning and losing. It’s about community. It’s about coming together as a team. It’s about discipline and training. It’s about personal development. It’s about joy when you win. And it’s about learning and growing when you lose.
As Bruce Pearl reminds us, sports is about giving glory to God. Win or lose. Now that’s the best story of March Madness.
Cover photo courtesy of Unsplash user Todd Greene.