After his team suffered the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history, Virginia Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett exhibited poise, class and wisdom. The coach of the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed was more gracious than could be expected.
“I grew up, played at Wisconsin-Green Bay, the hyphenated schools, I know how good they are,” he said on the night of March 16, 2018. “Good basketball knows no divisions or limits or qualities. It’s who played the best for 40 minutes. If you play this game and you step into the arena, this stuff can happen. And those who haven’t been in the arena or in the competition, maybe they don’t understand that.”
Your Veteran Scribe has never been in the arena as a competitor, but he understands the crucible of the NCAA Tournament. Since 1985, a champion needs to play a minimum of 240 minutes of winning basketball to cut nets. The margin can be minute. A bad stretch from one media timeout to the next can flip a game from victory to defeat.
In 1992, YVS believed and predicted that Duke would fall short of consecutive titles; too much pressure, too many landmines to win six. The sport had not had back-to-back champions for nearly two decades – and UCLA had needed just eight victories for its last repeat in 1972 and 1973. All it took was one of the greatest shots in one of the greatest regional finals for the Blue Devils to prevail.
Virginia is the first national champion since Arizona in 1997 to win two overtime games in the tournament. The Cavaliers and the Wildcats each won their regional final and their title game in extra time.
The basketball gods, assuming they exist, have a wheel-of-fortune randomness in dispensing their fortune and humor. For Virginia, perhaps 2019 was payback penance for 2018.
Do not confuse that for labeling the Cavaliers as lucky. The coaching staff and the players learned from the UMBC loss, ripped the band-aids off their wounds and regarded their scars as badges earned.
YVS had trouble sleeping early Tuesday morning (and no cracks about ageism, please). At times, the mind’s eye memory creates video loops, incessantly replaying. After the championship game, the final 22.5 seconds of regulation were in heavy rotation.
Two clutch free throws by fifth-year senior Norense Odiase gave Texas Tech a 68-65 lead. The Red Raiders had one timeout. Should Chris Beard have called a timeout to confirm strategy? Should he have replaced Odiase with a quicker defender?
“We work on that every day in practice,” he said. “Three-point lead, we don’t want to give up a three. We work on it every single day. I’ll have to go back and watch the film.”
Virginia’s Ty Jerome, who on the Cavaliers’ previous position and drove left side of the lane and missed a runner, again drove toward the basket, leaving Odiase in his wake at the top of the key. Jarrett Culver left his man (De’Andre Hunter) to help contest Jerome’s drive. Brandone Francis also came flying in from the right side to help. That enthusiasm left Hunter wide open for a game-tying 3-pointer with 12.9 seconds remaining.
YVS has seen this movie. “Help” defense can become a hindrance. It’s like football’s prevent defense. While Texas Tech was the nation’s best defensive team, on this crucial possession, the Red Raiders forgot that three was more than two. An easy layup is preferable to the open three in that situation.
The second-guessing continues. Culver, the Big 12’s player of the year, dribbled up the court and accepted a screen from Davide Moretti. Dribbling to his left, he was picked up by Virginia’s Kyle Guy. Instead of attacking the basket, with five seconds left he launched a 3-pointer (he failed to connect behind the line all night).
The shot missed, but a Virginia turnover gave the Red Raiders another possession with one second remaining. That resulted in a forced, fadeaway 3-pointer that was blocked by Braxton Key.
Third-guessing here: Perhaps there wasn’t time for a pump fake, but Key was aggressive with his defense and Culver faded away from potential contact. If not a pump fake, had Culver turned and gone straight up, perhaps Key would have pulled an Auburn and committed a foul.
The opportunity to play another five minutes most likely felt like destiny for Virginia. There is video evidence that supports that theory. One might say the basketball gods were working overtime.
CBS Sports director Tony Verna is credited as the father of instant replay. He used videotape for the Army-Navy game on Dec. 7, 1963. (Ironically, 16 days earlier President Kennedy was assassinated and the Zapruder film has been instant replayed, frame-by-frame, more than any other moving image.)
As technology has progressed and stay-at-home fans have 60-inch HD screens and DVR capability, instant replay has become as much a part of sports as sweat. A replay review arguably decided the play that ended Texas Tech’s hopes.
But during the day Tuesday, Twitter informed YVS that the replay decision wasn’t the only bad break for the losers.
With just under three minutes left in overtime, Texas Tech led by three. Guy, guarded by Moretti, dribbled to his right in front of the Virginia bench. Mamadi Diakite moved to set a screen and he tripped Guy, who went sprawling out of bounds.
Another look. Wow. pic.twitter.com/p4yHTi6Rup
— Eli Hershkovich (@EliHershkovich) April 9, 2019
Official Terry Wymer, who was no less than 10 feet away with a clear view, called Moretti, who never touched Guy. Wymer whistled Moretti for the foul and Guy made two free throws at 2:45. Instead of possession with a three-point lead, the Red Raiders were just up by a point.
YVS often rails at officials while understanding that their job is incredibly difficult. The problem as YVS sees it as accountability. Wymer will collect his check and be hired to work 100 or so games next season.
He should not, however, receive any NCAA Tournament assignments. He egregiously missed and mis-called a key play in a national championship game. That should carry consequences.
Moretti, a sophomore guard from Bologna, Italy, no doubt believes the officiating crew was full of baloney. With just over a minute left in OT and his team trailing by two, Moretti hustled after a loose ball and gained possession. Hunter in fast pursuit knocked the ball free and out of bounds. Before he swatted it from Moretti’s control, Guy had hacked Moretti around the waist; Guy was so sure that he had fouled he immediately drew his arms back in the “I never touched him” appeal. Wymer was the ref in position to make the call even though he appeared to be a few steps behind.
Listen Tech had its chances, and this will probably get taken down by the NCAA, but down two late in OT, this play turned the game.
This is a foul. In real speed it was a foul. In slow mo it was a foul.
Instead, a Tech turnover, and UVA went on a 6-0 run to close out the game. pic.twitter.com/dDXwlrK75i
— Eric Kelly (@EricKellyTV) April 9, 2019
It appeared clear that it should be the Red Raiders’ ball. But the rules allow for replay review. It took super-slow motion – which is not as high definition as other replays – to determine that the ball had skimmed off Moretti’s skin. That “turnover” determined by three officials looking at a video screen ended one team’s chance at a championship.
Once sports decided to use technology to remove the human element – such as Wymer’s bad call – we entered the replay world. The NFC Championship Game, Jerome’s double-dribble in the national semifinal that was missed, the definition of what’s a catch… instead of a sharper image of important plays, we have Zapruder-like analysis to determine the outcome.
Virginia’s redemption is one of those tales that will live on for years. The Cavaliers needed 250 minutes to rewrite their narrative. Just remember that there are numerous threads that help tell the story.
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