Here’s to the Virginia Cavaliers, who have climbed all the way into the Final Four from deep in the wrong trough of history. It is the second-best thing they have done in the past year or so.
The best was the way they handled the embarrassment of becoming the first No. 1 seed ever to get beaten by a 16th seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Nothing against the achievement of qualifying for the last weekend of March Madness, which Virginia has done after more than 12 months of shame for losing to UMBC, a team from Stony Brook’s America East Conference. The Final Four is the pinnacle of college basketball, but let’s face it. Four teams do it every year. No one ever did what the Cavaliers did in 2018.
They were not brusque or testy. They did not use the old line, “Not to make excuses but . . . ,” which always is followed by an excuse. That is, they did not point out that De’Andre Hunter, an All-ACC freshman team member, was out with a wrist injury. What they did was raise a verbal toast to UMBC and never sniped at the winner’s clever Twitter account. They were classy when being classy was the toughest thing to be.
“That’s all we can be. We can’t have a hissy fit because we lost,” Hunter said Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium as he and his team prepared to play Auburn in one of the two semifinals Saturday. “At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. There’s so much more to life than that one game.”
Which is not to say it was a joyride.
“It was terrible,” said Hunter, now fully healthy. “That team was great to be on. Watching that game just stunk because they’re going to be remembered for that one game. It just hurt me a lot because I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Ty Jerome remembers being so numb about ending a 135-0 run for No. 1 seeds — by 20 points, no less — that he sat in a hotel room with his family into the next morning. “Then we got back on the plane and I went back to my room and just sat there,” he said Friday.
“You can’t point fingers when you lose,” Jerome said. “You go out, you prepare as hard as you can, and if the ball doesn’t go your way or the other team outplays you, you’ve got to give credit to them and you just go try to figure out how you can get better and learn from it.”
He and teammate Kyle Guy sat on the podium after that 74-54 drubbing and took the heat. Coach Tony Bennett made sure of that and told them it was their defining moment. He did not have to add that it was just as defining for the coach.
Back then, Bennett said “hats off” to the Retrievers and “they thoroughly outplayed us” and “if you play this game and step into the arena, this stuff can happen.”
In the past couple of days here, Bennett has remembered how Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team will play Texas Tech here Saturday, called last March and “was just unbelievable.” Bennett reflected on how he and his players have grown closer in the past year: “That was such a pivotal moment and devastating in so many ways and humbling that I knew we had to be there for each other.”
Guy, now a junior who had a big part in the Elite Eight win over Purdue, said Friday of his worst loss ever: “It changed my life for the better . . . I don’t think about it out of the blue like I used to. When we beat Purdue, I was thinking about the 180 turn and how joyous that was, to be on my knees again but this time crying tears of joy.”
Not long after that big win, UMBC’s Twitter account showed a wordless video of a smiling man raising a toast. Here’s to you, Virginia Cavaliers.