Virginia basketball will remember the tune for the rest of its life. Cavs coach Tony Bennett left his heart in Charlotte last season.
That’s where 16th seed UMBC knocked his top-seeded team out of the 2018 NCAA Tournament in the first round, perhaps the most shocking upset in the sport’s history.
The reaction to that loss was palpable; stunned disbelief just begins to explain it. Bennett’s peers sent him their condolences and inspiration messages while Cavaliers nation sat Shiva.
“We’ve all had our own battles,” Cavaliers guard Kyle Guy said. “It’s a really special group because we all had the same `Why?’ amongst other whys.”
Of course, there would be a new season in 2019 and eventually the grief wore off and was replaced with a sense of cautious optimism as the program began the process of making amends.
You’d have to say the reclamation project went quite well. The Cavaliers completed the journey from worst to first on Monday by beating Texas Tech 85-77 in overtime to win its first national championship.
“We did something unbelievable,” said Cavaliers forward Mamadi Diakite. “We just made history.”
They paid honor to the credo of surviving and advanced, defeating Oregon, Purdue and Auburn in nail-biting fashion to get from the Sweet 16 to Monday. Each win seemed more improbable than the last. And that was after a near apocalypse in the first round when they trailed another 16 seed, Gardner-Webb, by 14 points in the first half and six points at halftime.
Like all teams who win championships, Virginia received exemplary individual performances from Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter. They made every shot they needed to make.
Guy’s performances against Purdue, Auburn and Texas Tech will forever be etched in the memories of Virginia fans, particular the incredible cool that enabled him to sink three free throws with 0.6 second left in the national semifinal.
“He’s just got it,” said Bennett. “You look at him, and he’s not the most physical guy, but it’s inside. … I could go down the (roster), but that’s what you look for. You take guys who are tough mentally and skilled and smart and have enough athleticism, and you can be really good.”
Virginia was nicely set up for its Tournament roll. The Cavs won their first 16 games by an average of 22.6 points. It lost only twice in the regular season, both to Duke, before Florida State beat it in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament.
During the course of the year it also developed its calling card, a propensity for playing with offensive caution and defensive intensity, limiting opponents possessions and making them work hard for every point they might get.
As the year moved along, Bennett often brought motivational speakers to campus, his way of making sure his players understood how to turn last year’s calamity into positive energy. He never played dumb. He never refused to admit what had happened. He just accepted it as a part of the game and moved ahead.
Texas Tech was a formidable opponent, this season’s Cinderella. It was also a ferocious defensive team and Virginia did not whistle while it worked.”You can’t go through the stuff that no one’s experienced,” said Bennett. “Again, it’s a game. We talked about it, but they had to deal with things, their own stuff inside and the opinion of others, and just come together and tighten in a way; and they went after it in terms of developing their own game and then how they played.”
The game went back and forth all night, finally stepping into the eight overtime in NCAA championship game history. And that’s where the Cavaliers finally separated themselves. It was Hunter who canned a three-pointer from the right side with 2:07 to play to finally give them the momentum they needed to finish the job.
Hunter had 27 points (22 in the second half) and nine rebounds. Guy, the MVP of the Final Four, had 24 points. Jerome added 16 points, eight assists and six rebounds. The Cavs drained 11 threes, maximizing their possessions by averaging 1.13 points per touch.
In all honesty, the only way Virginia figured to close the book on UMBC was to write the best chapter ever, something that would leave its audience smiling, cheering and asking for more. It was a great task. It hadn’t been to a Final Four in more than 30 years. There was nothing to fall back on, no experience to build upon.
“Forget last year. This is everything you dream of since you’re a little kid,” said Jerome. “I’m not even thinking about UMBC right now. I’m just thinking this is a dream come true, and it’s even more than that, because you never even imagine you’ll be able to spend a year with people you actually love, your teammates and your coaches. Not a lot of people get along like we do, so to share this moment with them is unbelievable.”