MINNEAPOLIS — One embarrassing moment is not the end of the world. For Virginia, it was just the start. It launched the Cavaliers on a trajectory from their worst nightmare to their greatest dream.
Completing a rally from unsavory history last March, Virginia had its One Shining Moment on Monday night, winning a classic national championship game, 85-77, over Texas Tech in overtime. That capped a massive rebound from having been the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed, an event 13 months ago that strengthened its resolve. This year, it starred in the tribute video, “One Shining Moment.”
In fact, there was a suggestion that the defeat and the haunting year that followed actually was necessary for this team. “I guess so,” said De’Andre Hunter, who was heartsick over missing last year’s first-round ouster because he was injured. “It makes this so much more worth it.”
Hunter more than made up for the regret he had over not being able to prevent Virginia from losing to UMBC, a team from Stony Brook’s America East Conference, in March 2018. He scored 27 points against Texas Tech, 22 of them after halftime. His three-pointer with 14 seconds left sent the game to overtime, and he hit another with less than two minutes remaining in the extra period to put the Cavaliers ahead to stay.
Soon after that, they were celebrating the school’s first-ever championship in The Big Dance.
Kyle Guy effectively was the face of the failure last year in that he had to address the media after the 20-point loss to the much lower seed. Not only that, but he subsequently went public with his struggles over anxiety issues.
“We’ve been saying all year that if you use adversity right, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way. That made us stronger, a better team, better players, better people,” he said after scoring 24 points. “To be able to hug each other with confetti going everywhere and being able to say we did it, that is the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt in basketball.”
Virginia carried deep scars for a whole year after one embarrassing moment. Coach Tony Bennett said of the lingering sting, “In a way, it’s a painful gift. It did draw us nearer to each other as a team. I think it helped us as coaches. I think it helped the players on the court and helped us in other areas.”
Anyone who followed college basketball got caught up in Virginia’s rebound this season, marked by last-gasp victories in the Elite Eight and Final Four. “From the heartbreak of last year to be playing in the national championship Monday night, it’s a story you pull for,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said.
Fittingly, the title involved one last huge struggle. Texas Tech was a story in its own right, under a basketball lifer coach who has worked at all levels of the game and all over the map. The Red Raiders lost almost all of the core that brought them to the Elite Eight last year, but after Norense Odiase hit two free throws for a three-point lead, they were only 22 seconds away from their own first national title.
“The game was everything I thought it would be,” said Beard, whose team was led by Brandone Francis’ 17 points. “I thought it would come down to one last possession and it did, in regulation. Then in overtime, it just got away from us a little bit.”
Virginia did not let the opportunity slip away. “We just stay disciplined. We do the little things. We’re built for this. We know who we are,” Guy said. “We knew that the will to win wasn’t enough. We had to do everything possible. We left it all on the court.”
Ty Jerome (16 points), who also had to take the heat at the losers’ news conference in March 2018, said, “Forget last year. I’m not even thinking about UMBC. This is everything you’ve dreamed about since you were a little kid.”
But there was no way to separate this from that. One of the first public congratulations to arrive was from the UMBC Twitter feed, which made such a splash last year. This time the message was: “What an incredible season for UVA. That was truly a turnaround for the ages! Congratulations, champs!”
This memory will last a whole lot longer than the one from last year. As Hunter said amid the confetti, “We achieved our dream.”