Virginia and Texas Tech treated basketball fans to a fireworks-packed NCAA title game on Monday night and shed their reputations as defensive party poopers in the process. (And to think some idiots said the game would be bad.) Virginia won in overtime, 85–77, and it capped off a redemption project that started a year ago with one of the most embarrassing losses in college sports history. Last March, the Cavaliers earned the dubious distinction of being the first No. 1 seed in Division I men’s basketball history to lose to a No. 16 seed in the tournament. They were run off the court by UMBC—a chess school!—but they returned to the scene of the crime this year and won the whole dang thing.
“In a way, it’s a painful gift,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said of the UMBC loss on Sunday. “It did draw us nearer to each other as a team.” One hopes this is the start of a trend, where coaches at top programs throw games against McNeese State and Incarnate Word in order to build camaraderie.
It would be one thing had Virginia played to type this March and ground its opponents to dust, but the Cavaliers won their title in a most un-Virginia-like fashion. For three straight games (including the title contest), they outgunned their opponents. The trio of desperate, late comebacks began with a miracle overtime win against Purdue, and in the Final Four the Cavaliers managed to keep up with a lightning-fast Auburn team.
The slow pace of Bennett’s squads is the stuff of infamy, but Virginia transformed into freewheeling risk-takers when everything was on the line. On Monday, the Cavaliers blew a 10-point second-half lead but forced overtime thanks to De’Andre Hunter’s corner 3-pointer.
Hunter is Virginia’s sure-thing NBA prospect, and he led all scorers in the title game with 27 points. It should be noted that he missed last year’s UMBC loss due to injury, but let’s not let his absence take anything away from the severity of that capitulation. Virginia lost by 20 points to the Retrievers. Had that embarrassment occurred during the time of Edward IV, the entire squad would have been tarred, feathered, and sent to the Tower of London (and that’s just for the sin of wearing shorts). But it occurred in 2018, and so Bennett was allowed to regroup and steamroll through conference play.
The real test, though, would come in March, and it nearly got off to the worst start imaginable. Virginia stumbled against Gardner-Webb in the first round, and the feisty No. 16 seed took a 14-point first-half lead. The Cavaliers steadied themselves, and their win was greeted with uncommon relief from a No. 1 seed. Naturally, Bennett was asked about UMBC after the Gardner-Webb game. “That will always be part of our story,” he said. “I understand that. And I’m sure a lot of people thought it was gonna be part of our story a second year in a row. But it’s just now—this is a new year. This is trying to be in the moment.”
Bennett has an anomalous demeanor for a college basketball coach. While his peers are often red-faced Howard Beale types, he maintains a tranquil presence on the sideline. This is true even when his team looks to be suffering a late-game collapse, as was the case on Monday. But he didn’t falter, and his players followed his lead in overtime, where their pristine execution (17 points!) put the title beyond doubt.
“When the world’s telling you you’re a failure and a loser,” Bennett said after the title game, “You say, ‘OK, what really matters?’ It drove me. I think, as a staff, we got better.” The way he puts it, losing sounds pretty awesome.