The title game no one thought they wanted gave us an ending no one will forget and a champion no one could stop. In each of its final three games, Virginia trailed in the final seconds, staring desperation in the face.
But that’s nothing new for the Cavaliers, who confronted their worst fears 13 months ago only to live out their most fanciful dreams on Monday night. Whatever started that grim night in Charlotte ended in overtime triumph in Minneapolis, Kyle Guy sprinting up the court with arms outstretched, smiling so wide he almost looked like he was laughing.
From the depths of despair to the pinnacle of the sport, Virginia’s journey was as improbable as it was inspiring, finding a way to use the loss to UMBC as a springboard to eventual success, and whatever broke against the Cavaliers in that game broke their way in April, right to the end against Texas Tech on Monday.
“I wish it wouldn’t have happened, in some ways,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Now I say, well, it bought us a ticket here. So be it.”
Guy’s free throws sealed the semifinal win over Auburn, and his pick for De’Andre Hunter opened up space on the right wing for the go-ahead basket in overtime, after Jerome found Hunter open for the game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation. Those three suffered the most last year – Hunter out injured, Guy and Jerome going to the podium with Bennett to face the music – and those three combined not only on the game’s most crucial plays but scored 57 of Virginia’s points in this 85-77 win over Texas Tech.
In the end, this was less about redemption for Virginia than it was validation, proof that Bennett was right all along, that the Cavaliers’ regular-season success had not come at the expense of postseason success. Their style may not be for everyone, but it works, officially. Slow? Maybe. Boring? A matter of taste, although the shot-making by both teams Monday night was exquisite. Outdated? No longer.
“There’s nothing anyone can say,” said Jerome, cradling the championship trophy in his arms. “You can criticize, you can argue our system doesn’t work, you can argue we’re not talented – we’re national champions. You can’t say anything.”
It took everything the Cavaliers had to put away the Red Raiders, whose toughness, mental and physical, was extraordinary. Every time Virginia thought it had opened up some space, Texas Tech punched back, the Cavaliers making an odd habit of squandering double-digit leads, making things more interesting than they needed to be.
It was the defensive slugfest everyone expected from two of the best defensive teams in the country, and yet after a few minutes of misfires to start, it was an enthralling and entertaining game, the quality of the defense serving to highlight the abilities of the offenses. When Jarrett Culver got going for Texas Tech in the second half, it became an exercise in oneupmanship.
There may not have been the stars everyone expected to see in the Final Four – Duke’s Zion Williamson appeared no less than seven times in “One Shining Moment” – but some players here became stars, like Texas Tech’s Matt Mooney after his performance against Michigan State, and others who should long have been considered stars got their due: Guy as an elite shooter, Jerome as the ultimate facilitator, Hunter for more than his defense, Culver for his versatility.
And if it was a long time coming for this Virginia team, consider the university at large, something to cleanse the historic losses to Chaminade and UMBC. Ralph Sampson, denied a title as a player, rose to tower above the fans around him, pumping his first on the scoreboard during a timeout. There may never have been a more joyous rendition of the Good Old Song, tens of thousands of fans swaying and singing through tears.
Perhaps not quite moved to tears but just as happy, ACC commissioner John Swofford stood under the basket as Virginia’s players and coaches ascended the ladder to cut down the nets. This was the ACC’s fifth title in the past 11 years as Virginia became the seventh current or former ACC program to win an NCAA title, the fifth as an active member of the league, the sixth among current members – the numerical confusion a product of the arrival of Big East champions through expansion and the departure of Maryland, the last ACC school other than Duke or North Carolina to win a title before Monday.
Swofford was unusually happy with this championship; the ACC now has the reigning football and men’s basketball champions as it gets ready to launch its network in a mere four months, and came within a few plays of claiming women’s basketball as well Sunday.
“It’s awfully good for business,” Swofford said. “The entire nation can see our strength in the two revenue-producing sports. It’s a good thing.”
As accustomed as Swofford may be to this scene, Jay Huff isn’t far behind. The Virginia forward from Durham actually got into the game tonight after watching Saturday night when the Cavaliers only went seven deep. He won an NCHSAA state title at Voyager Academy, an ACC title as a redshirt freshman and a national title as a sophomore, not a bad few years.
“What’s the next step up?” Huff asked. “A world title? NBA? Who knows. Not too bad. Not too bad at all.”
These are questions Virginia can ask now, the Cavaliers having silenced their critics and whatever doubts they may still have harbored themselves. UMBC may never be forgotten – Virginia players were already making jokes about the inevitable 30 for 30 – but the Cavaliers have rewritten the ending.