MINNEAPOLIS — Only college basketball could give us something so storybook — too rich for movies; too perfect for documentaries — like Virginia winning the 2019 NCAA championship.
On Monday night inside U.S. Bank Stadium, UVA coach Tony Bennett, humbly seated on his stool, dropped his head in blissful victory, the weight of his own desires and dreams finally vaporizing around him, as the game clock expired and these Virginia Cavaliers completed the greatest redemption arc in college hoops history.
Virginia’s 85-77 overtime triumph against Texas Tech and its No. 1-rated defense came in an undeniably epic, and historic, 2019 national title game, just the eighth ever to require OT. Virginia’s first championship in school history and Bennett’s first title as a coach completes the circle, the curvature of which started on March 16, 2018, when No. 1 overall seed UVA lost by 20 points to No. 16 UMBC and became the most infamous loser in NCAA Tournament history.
Now that historic loss is but prologue to the epic victory Bennett and his Cavs earned over a Red Raiders team that was agonizingly close to winning its first national title.
“I’m thankful in a way for what happened because it did, it drew me closer, most importantly, to my faith in the Lord, drew me closer to my wife and children, just because you realize what’s unconditional,” Bennett said Monday night. “In those spots when the world’s telling you you’re a failure, you’re a loser, and you’re the worst thing going, and all that stuff, you say, OK, what really matters? And it pushed me to that in a way.”
The scenes about the stadium were indelible as the title was clinched. Kyle Guy leapt through the air, goofy grin and all, and De’Andre Hunter threw the ball seemingly halfway to the ceiling as the clock hit all-zeros. Bennett was hugged by his assistant, Jason Williford, as every UVA player and coach convened on the court — except one.
Ty Jerome was cry-smiling as he climbed over the team bench to get to his family first. They, and hundreds of others in the Virginia fan section, were drenched in tears. Confetti falling, streams of gold and silver draping Virginia and its fans in victory. The Bennett family, seven rows back, bear-hugged each other and practically fell over in their seats. This was catharsis.
“It means the world, and I wish I had the words, but it still does not feel real”.Virginia junior guard Kyle Guy
It also felt inevitable.
“The whole time I believed we were going to win,” Laurel Bennett, Tony’s wife, said. “It felt too storybook not to happen. I’m not saying I wasn’t nervous — I just believed it was going to happen. …. There was a fire in his belly. He said, ‘I want to win a national championship more than ever before.'”
The dichotomy of 2018 vs. 2019 is phenomenal, and appropriate (the University of Virginia was founded in 1819). The images of UMBC’s win will live forever as part of the power and stun-factor of March, as will Virginia’s slouched-over grief. Now, this. A baptism by championship.
“Joy is in the competition,” Guy said. “But to be able to give him (Bennett) a national championship and do it for him, the program, and our families, it means the world, and I wish I had the words, but it still does not feel real.”
A peaceful, thankful, joyful Dick Bennett soaked in the scene on the court afterward. He didn’t come for Saturday’s semifinal win over Auburn, but he was not missing this, be it in a win or a loss.
“Words aren’t very accurate when your emotions outrun them,” he said, later adding, “the thrill is worth the anguish, believe me.”
Virginia responding to the loss to UMBC by winning 35 of its 38 games this season was masterful. The Cavaliers needed strokes of luck, sure, but they earned and deserved this. Things got dark, if not bizarre, after the UMBC loss, much more than some might even realize.
“The team got these death threats,” Laurel Bennett said. “They did take a police escort back to the hotel, they came in through a side door, a policeman went up with each of the guys to their rooms. It was ridiculous and it made it feel so much worse to them, I think.”
It exacerbated the situation. In the days and weeks after, Tony and Laurel decided for their family and for this program that the loss would be the start of something positive. It had to. No matter what the next season would bring, 3/16/18 wouldn’t define Virginia basketball.
In light of this win, though, it has. It’s the ultimate example of popping back up after getting knocked down. This story has no parallel in the history of American sports.
“We had so many talks and they were all good,” Laurel Bennett said. “They were hard and he was upset, but it was perspective, what really matters, what that loss meant, what we would learn from it. Already thinking about how this is going to be talked about forever, how are we going to deal with that with the team. He had that interview about the man in the arena, and I think people were more struck by that response to a loss than they’ve ever been or will ever be to something he says about a win.”
On Monday night, Bennett was the man in the arena — the biggest of them — and the one on about to conquer the incredible.
And of course it had to be like this. After the magical escape against Purdue in the Elite Eight; Kihei Clark’s pass to Mamadi Diakite is the Decision of the Tournament. After the freaky escape from Auburn in the Final Four; the foul on Guy a cosmic kiss, yet again, in UVA’s favor.
On the final night of this 2018-19 season, one more elite opponent to topple. It would be dramaturgical. For the third straight tournament game, Virginia trailed late into second half. Hunter’s 3-pointer from the corner — great pass, Ty Jerome — giving way to overtime, making true the first title game to go to OT since 2008.
“My (Apple) Watch kept telling me to breathe,” Kathi Bennett, Tony’s sister, said.
Hunter, Guy (the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player) and Jerome played as well together on Monday as they had all season, combining for 67 of the team’s 85 points. The Hoos scored 1.21 points per possession on the best defense, statistically, in two decades. This was a coronation. A game expected to be a race to 60 wound up being the highest-scoring title game in 19 years!
And yet Virginia, dominant as it was for most of this 2018-19 season, never made it easy in the postseason. Even the 2019 first-round game against Gardner-Webb was rife with horror flashbacks, UVA trailing by double digits in that game before coming back to win.
“The one thing I said to them before in the locker room, I said, ‘You guys faced pressure that no team in the history of the game has faced, well, really all year, but being down 14 against Gardner Webb, and you did not panic in that moment,'” Bennett said. “‘And you fought, and you found a way out. That, I think, has prepared you for this moment to be able to handle the pressure or the intensity of a national championship game.”‘
The clutch play of Hunter — his 3-pointer to tie the game at 68 with 13 seconds remaining in regulation is one of the biggest shots in school history — and the resolve of UVA to steady itself in the extra period was the right ending. Virginia does drama, but it also separates and, normally, suffocates the opposition.
How incredible that the first title game in college hoops history to have both teams make at least 10 3-pointers came from two epic defenses? This was the finish this NCAA Tournament deserved.
The Wahoos twice blew 10-point leads. That only amped the anxiety. Texas Tech had it — until it didn’t. Just like Oregon, Purdue and Auburn. The best team, and the best program, in college basketball won the national title. That doesn’t happen every year. This 2019 is the end of one story but easily could be the fledgling, fruitful start of another.
“Forget last year, this is everything you dream of since you’re a little kid.”Virginia junior guard Ty Jerome
“Forget last year, this is everything you dream of since you’re a little kid,” Jerome said. “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.”
The obvious thread of 2018 into 2019 makes this a unique American sports success story. But this is also material validation of Virginia’s standing in college basketball. Bennett has guided Virginia to 178 wins the past six seasons — that’s 30 wins per year. It’s as good as almost any program in the sport.
Maybe this winds up as the only title Bennett ever wins. But with the “Virginia’s style can’t win in the tournament” narrative detonated into deletion forever, you can’t say you’d be surprised if the Cavaliers were in the Final Four again in 2020 (they’ll be a preseason top-10 team) or multiple times in the coming decade, so long as Bennett’s still in charge.
Know this: The Wahoos have rated as a top-six team at KenPom five of the past six seasons. They were great before winning a national title. They’re legendary, if not outright validated, now — and probably going to become more dangerous going forward. Winning a championship is only going to strengthen this program, Bennett and boost its ceiling.
It’s an unbelievable story that became believable because of Bennett’s unique disposition. This is the best team, the best story.
“I think there was a bigger plan going on here, and I didn’t need it, but I was used in it,” Bennett said. “I hope that it’s a message for some people out there that there can be hope and joy and resiliency. I’m thankful for what happened. That’s why I did what I did at the end. When that horn went off, I just put my head down and said, ‘Thank You. I’m humbled, Lord, because I don’t deserve to be in this spot, but you chose me to be here, and I’ll give thanks.'”
Bennett steeps himself in humility. He’s one of the most likable coaches in sports because of it, because of how he and his team handled maybe the most embarrassing loss a college team could ever take.
“It’s a great story,” he said. “That’s probably the best way I can end this.”
One of the greatest ever in sports. The circle is complete, and now the shape of Virginia’s story takes on a new form with Final Four-sized expectations becoming the standard in Charlottesville.