MINNEAPOLIS — Virginia can exhale now.
The Cavaliers can laugh too, because last year’s upset loss to UMBC, it seems, was just a step toward the most redemptive season in the history of college basketball.
The joke was on us.
Because of Monday night’s 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech in the national championship at U.S. Bank Stadium — the first title for the Cavaliers — Virginia falling in the first 16-over-1 loss in NCAA tournament history means less.
The UMBC game will never be forgotten. In the future, however, it will only be mentioned as a footnote because of what Virginia accomplished in Minneapolis one year, 23 days later.
“We did something unbelievable,” Mamadi Diakite said after Monday’s win. “We just made history.”
Virginia earned redemption with Monday’s win, which demanded extra time and big shots from De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. Virginia had the edge throughout regulation, but the Cavaliers still needed overtime to finish the Red Raiders in the unexpected thriller.
Nothing was easily won for this team.
Guy hit three free throws after drawing a foul on Samir Doughty with 0.6 seconds to play in Saturday’s Final Four win over Auburn. Diakite hit a buzzer-beater in regulation in a Sweet 16 matchup against Purdue, which the Cavaliers won in overtime. With 5:21 to play, UVa was tied with Oregon in the Sweet 16 before outlasting the Ducks in a four-point win.
The Cavs had sailed through the regular season, losing just two games, both to Duke, before a loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament.
When Gardner-Webb took a 14-point lead on Virginia in the opening round of this NCAA tournament, questions about the previous season’s chaos returned.
“That will always be part of our story,” Bennett said after the come-from-behind win. “I understand that.”
Bennett never allowed his team to run from the impact of the previous year’s upset. He introduced motivational speakers to help his team focus on the present. He answered questions about the collapse wherever he went. He knew he couldn’t escape the UMBC shadow. But that strengthened his team.
“You can’t go through the stuff that no one’s experienced,” Bennett said after Monday’s win. “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 greatest upsets often mean more for the defeated than the victor. In sports, Goliath doesn’t die.
After the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in hockey’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, Russian athletes won gold medals in the next three Winter Olympics. Tennis legend Rafael Nadal lost to journeyman Robin Soderling, a 48-to-1 underdog, in the fourth-round of the 2009 French Open. But Soderling faded into retirement shortly after Nadal beat him in the 2010 French Open final, the first of four major championships in a two-year stretch for the latter.
But there is another side to upsets. When teams and players fail to recover, those bad nights can become defining moments.
By the time he rose from the canvas after Buster Douglas had KO’d him in the 10th round in 1990, Mike Tyson’s best years were behind him. Y.E. Yang’s come-from-behind win over Tiger Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship preceded the golf superstar’s rapid fall, on and off the course. And UNLV has reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament only once (2007) since its loss to Duke in the 1991 national title game.
That’s why Monday night mattered so much for Virginia.
As the memories of a 20-point loss to a 16-seed lingered as the program’s most incredible moment, its chances of masking the collective achievements of Bennett and his Cavaliers would increase. But they never allowed that blemish to fester.
That’s why they all hugged and cried on the court together, current contributors and those from the past, on Monday night. They all heard the criticism and the jokes. They all saw the memes. They all read their mentions. The laughingstock of last year’s field, however, celebrated a championship on Monday night.
“I mean, what do you say? It happens,” said Justin Anderson, a former Virginia star who now plays with the Atlanta Hawks. “Their story is better now. Their story is better.”
To exorcise the demons stemming from the worst loss by any team in the history of the NCAA tournament, maybe Virginia had to win it all. Few said it, but anyone who has followed the Cavaliers throughout the NCAA tournament could feel that.
Making the Final Four for the first time in more than 30 years was an impressive achievement for the program. But Bennett and his squad needed more for a full cleansing. They had to finish their mission.
“It’s amazing, man,” said Malcolm Brogdon, former Virginia star and current Milwaukee Bucks standout. “These guys work hard, man. Coach Bennett, after that loss last year, I knew he’d bounce back. But man, this is outstanding. His faith is unbelievable. Everybody has losses and sometimes they’re worse than others, but you can always bounce back. These guys are incredibly resilient.”
Twenty years from now, this team will gather in Charlottesville, Virginia, to commemorate the school’s first national championship in men’s basketball.
The crowd will cheer, just as it did in Minneapolis on Monday night. And the players, coaches and supporters will reminisce about the journey, one that saw the program fall flat on its face only to stand up again, one year later, face its past and rewrite the narrative with a national championship.
“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.”