Auburn basketball's last postseason game was in Final Four. Witnesses 'peacocking' 3 years later

Bennett Durando
Montgomery Advertiser

TAMPA, Fla. – There was only one constant throughout Myles McAtee’s 10 brackets.

He’s one of those fevered March Madness fans who fills out a dozen or so every year because, he says, “I want chaos.” The key is to hedge your bets and make every bracket different. But before the 2019 NCAA Tournament, McAtee was dead set on one pick.

“Normally you have a bracket where I'm going to make my team go to the championship, and then you have like a more realistic bracket,” he said. “But every single bracket I made, Auburn was in the championship.”

Why such confidence in a No. 5 seed?

“We were peaking at the perfect time – peacocking at the perfect time.”

He almost nailed it: Auburn’s memorable postseason run ended in Final Four heartbreak of the worst flavor. Fans literally thought they had won the game.

The Tigers’ SEC quarterfinal Friday (11 a.m. CT, SEC Network) will be their first postseason game since that 63-62 loss to Virginia in 2019. The 2020 SEC and NCAA tournaments were halted by COVID-19. In 2021, Auburn was self-exiled from the postseason. As Bruce Pearl’s program returns to March, fans have adopted a new mascot (because a tiger and eagle weren’t enough): The peacock is an emerging symbol of the fanbase’s united, unflinching optimism.

Students who trekked to Minneapolis three years ago range from undeterred to conflicted about “peacocking” as Auburn (27-4, 15-3 SEC) hopes to make another deep run.

Auburn student Myles McAtee's 2019 Final Four sign, drawn in the back of a car on the way from Auburn to Minneapolis.

“There’s no point in not being optimistic,” alum Shivam Patel said. “With the whole peacock theory, I feel like people are happier.”

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For second-generation Auburn fans who witnessed the devastation, shaking free of the old-school Murphy’s Law approach is a struggle. Ansley Jones was a freshman daughter of an Auburn alumni in U.S. Bank Stadium as the 2019 Final Four unfolded. Auburn led 62-60 as Virginia inbounded in the last seconds. When Kyle Guy missed the corner 3-pointer, the Auburn student section became “a mosh pit.”

Jones was stationed behind taller students, so the news reached her second-hand after “a couple minutes” of thinking Auburn had advanced: Guy was fouled. Three last-second free throws.

Jones looked at her friend: “I want to leave.”

“There’s still time.”

“No there’s not. Can we go?” Jones just knew.

“My dad and I are the same way: One bad play and I think, ‘It’s over,’” said Jones, who’s now a senior. “I’ve grown a lot. I love the peacock mentality, and I love having this blind confidence. But there’s this piece of me that doesn’t want to get too cocky, because the second I get confident is the second something goes wrong.”

Upstairs, freshman Sara Allen was sitting with her parents. After shaking her shaker for 30 seconds, she noticed fans around her getting quiet. “We won the game and then it got taken away from us,” she remembers. “Tears were coming out of my eyes.”

Like Jones, Patel and McAtee impulsively bought the $40 student ticket when the email went out in 2019. Then came the topic of getting there.

“Plane tickets were way too expensive for a college budget,” Patel remembers. A two-car caravan trip commenced. Patel finished his last exam at noon Friday and met his friends to begin the 18-hour journey to Minneapolis. They drove through the night. “It was like a surreal feeling,” he said. “I don't really remember what happened between us getting there and us getting to the game.”

But he’ll never forget those final seconds. “We couldn’t hear the whistle at all" from the student section's spot in the opposite end zone. Patel felt empty. He and his friends went to the nosebleeds to watch the second game, but during player introductions they exchanged looks: “There’s no reason for us to be here anymore.” They didn’t want to watch more basketball after that.

Still, the consensus among students who traveled was that the trip was more worthwhile than scarring.

Patel is graduated and works as an engineer in Atlanta. He already bought 2022 Final Four tickets. “I’m not bringing Auburn into this, because I haven’t fully peacocked yet,” Patel said. But he sees the peacock philosophy as being similar to that fun road trip that ended in sadness: "Don't regret it. Even though the outcome wasn't what we wanted in the game, it was the journey."

Michael Floyd, vice president of The Jungle, has booked a hotel in New Orleans. Jones has already requested time off work for Final Four week. McAtee has “a bunch” of friends who already bought tickets. The sensation is growing.

On McAtee's road trip to Minnesota, he sat in the back of the car drawing a huge sign listing the win probabilities Auburn had overcome to reach the Final Four. The sign featured that team’s motto: “Why not us?”

This year, the team's new mindset will be evident in his bracket again. No need to see the tournament field: McAtee is peacocking Auburn to the Final Four.