Virginia's national championship and the healing of wounds
MINNEAPOLIS — For Virginia, perhaps the greatest thing about Monday night’s 85-77 overtime national championship victory over Texas Tech is that the Cavaliers can finally embrace their past.
This was not simply the first championship in 114 years of Virginia basketball. To understand the emotions of the team and fanbase inside U.S. Bank Stadium — a mishmash of joy, smirky contentment, and relief — you would have to travel back in time.
March 16, 2018 was a long time ago. Since then, the Earth has rotated around the Sun once, and on its axis 388 times. Yet not one of those axis rotations has gone by without members of the Virginia basketball team thinking about that night at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.
It was there the Cavaliers, as the No. 1 overall seed, lost 74-54 to 16th-seeded University of Maryland-Baltimore County, becoming the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed in 136 tries. In two hours, four letters — UMBC — became shorthand for the March struggles of Tony Bennett’s program.
In nine years, the soft-spoken Wisconsinite had brought the Cavalier program from a 10-18 run to a perennial, regular-season power in the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference. But in five straight years ranked in the final AP Poll, Virginia lost in disappointing fashion in the NCAA tournament.
As they walked off the court in Charlotte, now-junior guard Ty Jerome, made a proclamation through tears to his nearly-inconsolable teammate Kyle Guy.
“I told him, ‘we’re gonna get (a national championship) before we’re done,’” Jerome said.
One year later, Guy was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, after scoring 39 points in two games in Minneapolis.
The 2016 Indiana Mr. Basketball, who spurned local interest to play for Bennett and the growing Cavalier program, was asked Monday night if he could have written a better ending.
“I’m not the greatest writer to begin with, but hell no,” Guy said.
The team that lost in Charlotte didn’t simply waltz back to the tournament and claim what was rightfully theirs. In fact, three major contributors to this championship run weren’t even on the court that night.
Freshman point guard Kihei Clark was in high school in Woodland Hills, California, sitting on exactly one Division I scholarship offer from UC Davis. The 5-foot-9-inch son of a Filipina mother and Hawaiian father knew his odds were longer than his wingspan, but was undeterred in his search for something greater. He announced his decommitment from UC Davis in August.
Bennett, who backed up 5-foot-3-inch Muggsy Bogues in the NBA, believed in Clark, and offered him his second scholarship at the end of the summer.
“I wanted to play at the highest level of basketball that I could,” Clark said. “So I opened up my recruitment, and coach Bennett talked to me, and it was pretty much a wrap from there.”
Bennett’s faith was rewarded last weekend in Louisville, in the Elite Eight against Purdue.
Trailing 70-67, Jerome was fouled with 5.4 seconds remaining. He made the first free throw, and intentionally missed the second. Redshirt junior forward Mamadi Diakite tapped the rebound out past the half-court line, where Clark collected it roughly 65 feet from the basket.
With time slipping away, Clark looked off a Purdue defender and fired a one-handed, 40-foot pass to Diakite, whose jumper, as time expired, sent the game to overtime. The Cavaliers won 80-75 to advance to their first Final Four since 1984.
“I don’t really think too much about my recruitment anymore,” Clark said. “I was just thinking about making a play in that moment and just trying to keep our hopes alive.”
Junior guard Braxton Key was still a member of Alabama’s basketball team when his future teammates were suffering the indignation in Charlotte. He transferred to Virginia to be part of a winning culture, and was widely expected to play a starting role. After five games, Key was removed from the starting lineup in favor of Clark, but he said that didn’t change his mindset.
Monday night, with the game tied at 68 and Texas Tech inbounding with one second remaining, Key was trusted to be in the game. He guarded Jarrett Culver. Culver caught the inbounds pass on the left block, and turned for a jumper that would have won the national championship.
Key swatted it.
“This is what I came here for,” Key said. “I wanted to win a national championship. I wanted to help my team in whatever role possible. Kyle told me weeks ago, ‘we’re gonna need you for a game, so keep your head right. Be ready for when your number’s called.’ It wasn’t Sweet Sixteen, it wasn’t Elite Eight, it wasn’t Final Four, but today it happened and I’m so happy I could help my team out.”
Before the Cavaliers cut the nets down Monday, they had to survive Saturday, against fifth-seeded and upset-minded Auburn. The Tigers had turned a ten-point deficit with 5:22 remaining into an improbable four-point lead with 17 seconds left.
Virginia was melting down again.
Then, Guy hit a three in the right corner with seven seconds remaining. Auburn’s Jared Harper made one of two free throws, and the Cavaliers inbounded down 62-60 with seven seconds left.
On the way up the floor, Jerome appeared to double dribble, but it wasn’t called. Guy caught a pass with less than a second left and raised from three-point range. As he was in mid-air, Auburn’s Samir Doughty brushed his body. A foul, and three free throws to win the game.
Swish. Swish. Swish.
Thomas Jefferson, who among other accomplishments founded the University of Virginia, once said “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”
Was it luck that the ball tipped to Clark in the waning seconds against Purdue? Was it luck that Jerome’s double dribble wasn’t called? Was it luck that the official whistled against Doughty with 0.6 seconds left?
“I definitely think the basketball gods were working in our favor,” Key said. “We had some good calls here and there, some good bounces. In my mind, it was destiny. I didn’t want to say that or put that out there, but I just thought — we’ve been through so much.”
Bennett wouldn’t bite when asked about the luck of the team.
“Just prepare well and get after it,” Bennett said. “They stepped in the moment. They faced pressure through the year, through the tournament, and all that stuff played into it.”
Monday night featured another Cavalier comeback. Once again, Virginia let slip a second-half lead, and after Jerome missed a floater with 25 seconds remaining, two Texas Tech free throws pushed the Red Raiders' lead to 68-65.
Bennett called the same play for Jerome again. But this time, he found someone else.
Redshirt sophomore guard De'Andre Hunter missed the UMBC loss with a broken left wrist — the third and most important player missing that night in Charlotte. He has stewed about what he would have done if he was on the court for over a year. After a slightly disappointing tournament, Hunter had a magnificent Monday night, scoring a career-high 27 points and guarding Culver for the majority of the game, limiting him to 5-of-22 shooting from the field.
With the game on the line, Jerome slipped into the lane and dished to Hunter in the right corner.
“I knew I was open,” Hunter said. “I think Culver was guarding me, he was in the paint, I just took my time and just shot it. I felt open, I had great rhythm when I caught it, and I made a couple prior to that, so I felt confident shooting the ball.”
When the ball went through the net to tie the game, Hunter’s expression didn’t change.
“I’m really passionate about the game, but I’m just not a screamer, I’m not a yeller,” Hunter said. “I just play my game, dominate, and if you notice, you notice, if you don’t, you don’t.”
Bennett was effusive in his praise for the Philadelphia native.
“I thought that was a great two-way performance, defensively and offensively, in this game and this setting, and he saved his best for last,” Bennett said. “That tells you there's something in that young man. He's got more — he's scratching the surface.”
Hunter made another three from the right corner with 2:09 remaining in overtime to give Virginia a 75-73 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“I dreamed about this as a kid, just having a great game on the biggest stage in college basketball,” he said. “There’s still going to be haters, still going to be people saying whatever, but it doesn’t matter to me right now.”
Our past is carved in stone. Not even Jefferson, with all his wit and revolutionary mind, could figure out how to change it. But in our mind’s eye, events in the present and future can shake the kaleidoscope, revealing a different way to see the same thing.
Virginia could win the next 100 national championships, and it will never escape UMBC.
But maybe it doesn’t have to.
“I’m sure we’ll hear about it, because that’s what everyone’s comeback is gonna be, but I’m all ears,” Guy said. “Say what they want, I’m a national champion, so they can’t take that away from me.”
Guy chuckled when asked if the story of the last two seasons qualified for an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary.
“They told us we couldn’t win in March, but look at us now,” Guy said.
Hunter said the constant reminders of last season’s nightmare brought the team closer together.
“It motivated us a lot,” he said. “After that game, we tried to block that from our memory, but of course it was brought up a lot.”
Bennett didn’t shy away when asked if the pain of last season was completely gone.
“Yeah, I mean, you have scars, right?” he said. “You have a scar, and it reminds you of that, but it's a memory. Does it go away completely? No, I wish it wouldn't have happened in some ways. Now I say, well, it bought us a ticket here. So be it.”
All season, the team tried to say it wasn’t thinking about the four cursed letters. The players hid their scars, unable to truly heal.
Now, perhaps the team and fanbase, so tortured by the memory of that wretched night in Charlotte, can put stitches in those scars and wear them proudly.
Right next to their championship rings.