Was it the best game ever? People who have been in this business a long time, including a veteran (and great) reporter on sports in the Commonwealth of Virginia, have already elevated the South Regional final between the Virginia Cavaliers and Purdue Boilermakers to a very lofty place.
This game certainly belongs high on the list of great March games. It had an iconic moment, Mamadi Diakite’s bucket off the remarkably sharp and quickly-delivered assist pass from Kihei Clark. It had the energy and intensity. It had the instantly unforgettable solo performance from Carsen Edwards. It had a redemptive game performance from Kyle Guy. It had the perfect choice for the maker of the go-ahead and winning basket: De’Andre Hunter, the man who missed Virginia’s 16-over-1 upset loss to UMBC a year ago. It had the biological father of one coach — Dick Bennett — and the spiritual basketball father of the other coach — Gene Keady — watching their “sons,” Tony Bennett and Matt Painter, in person.
It had so much of what makes March great.
Virginia-Purdue was played well, with relatively few turnovers. It was played at a high level of intensity. It was played in ways which pushed the coaches to the periphery of the proceedings on a night when those coaches were involved in one of the defining games of their lives.
Yet, as great as this game was, a big part of what made it so special — and will continue to give it a significant place in the public memory — was not merely the game itself, this sprawling and luminous and remarkable game, spread out before us on the national stage. No, what makes Virginia-Purdue 2019 an immortal March moment on the largest possible scale is that the backstory to this game will make us look back at this game for the rest of our lives.
Hyperbole? I certainly understand if you think that way, but let me make the case for why we are never going to forget this game.
This game will always be our reference point for these two programs. There is no going back. There is no way to unring that bell or think differently. This isn’t a final verdict on Virginia or Purdue, as though the Cavaliers’ legacy is secure or Purdue will never get over this heartbreak. What I mean is this: If Virginia is able to return to the Final Four in the near future, or if Purdue does cross the threshold and make the Final Four in the 2020s, or if these programs somehow do not make it back — whatever they do — this game will be the reference point. It will.
This game will either become the one moment no one could take from Tony Bennett, or it would become the first of several classic achievements in this golden age of Virginia basketball. This game will either become the moment Purdue’s national reputation changed, or it will become the most agonizing pre-Final Four loss for a program which has knocked on the door but not been able to knock it down for 39 years since the Boilermakers’ last Final Four in 1980.
The NCAA Tournament has a funny way of upholding our larger views but doing it in unexpected ways. What I mean is this: You know an upset will happen, but it happens with a team you didn’t predict or expect; it happens with a different team. You thought a No. 2 seed would lose, but you thought it would lose to the 7 seed… and then the 10 seed comes along and shreds the 2 seed.
That’s what the Big Dance so often does. You know what it does, but you don’t know WHERE or HOW the Dance will weave its magic and create its spell.
So it was with me in relationship to the South Regional final.
I said before the tournament at this very same website that a Virginia-Tennessee South Regional final might be the biggest game of the whole tournament, more than a Final Four semifinal or even the national title game.
Well, I just might have hit the mark on this bold prediction… but Purdue, not Tennessee, made this game what it was, with Virginia on the other side of the divide.
Purdue might have had two Final Fours in its past, unlike the Vols, who have none, but Purdue owns a richer basketball heritage which created a level of poignancy Tennessee might not have been able to match. With Keady in the stands on Saturday night in Louisville, and Dick Bennett there as well, this regional final recalled the regional final between those two men: It happened in the 2000 NCAA Tournament in Albuquerque. Dick Bennett’s Wisconsin Badgers beat Keady’s Purdue team to make the Final Four.
Wisconsin had not been to the Final Four since 1941. Keady took over at Purdue the season after the program’s last Final Four in 1980, coaching the Boilermakers with distinction for decades yet somehow being denied the Final Four whenever he got close to it. Keady and Temple’s John Chaney are, to this day, two of the foremost retired coaches (along with Lefty Driesell and a few others) who never made the Final Four.
This drama involving the Bennett family — and its journey from Green Bay to Madison in the state of Wisconsin, then to Washington State and then Virginia — plus Keady’s affection for Matt Painter, gave Virginia-Purdue deep roots in college basketball history and the story of this sport over the past 40 years. That 40-year “root system” branched into the long Final Four droughts of these programs as well, with Virginia trying to overcome not just the UMBC loss last year, but the haunting 2016 regional final defeat against Syracuse, when Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes could not handle the Syracuse press in the second half. Purdue was trying to overcome a bitterly unlucky March history under Painter, whose best teams were sidetracked by injuries — last year to Isaac Haas, roughly a decade ago to Robbie Hummel.
This game was amazing and remarkable, a game most (if not all) people would instantly point to as “the best of the best” in the annals of March Madness. If you saw the game, you might not call it the best ever, but it is certainly in the discussion. Yet, what makes Virginia-Purdue so deeply resonant in ways other classic March Madness games won’t match — not in the recent past, and not in the near future — is that the backstory was as remarkable as the game itself.
Given how remarkable the GAME was, that’s an amazing backstory.
Some hugely important basketball games offer amazing quality but not the accompanying storylines. Think of the scummy Dana Altman making the Final Four two years ago. Yuck. Oregon fans had a right to celebrate their first Final Four since the inaugural NCAA Tournament in 1939, but on a national level, no one was happy about seeing an ethically compromised coach reach the sport’s biggest weekend.
Some hugely important basketball games might not be classics at all, but the story is incredible. Think of George Mason beating Connecticut on a day when the Huskies played terribly. Who cared? George freaking Mason had made the Final Four, a game with profound long-term historical resonance and importance in the evolution of college basketball.
The true magic of Virginia-Purdue 2019 is that it married a great game with an equally great backstory. Tony Bennett joined Dick as the second father-son combination to make Final Fours, the first being the John Thompsons — Big John and JT3 — at Georgetown. Matt Painter absorbed the searing heartbreak his beloved mentor, Gene Keady, knew so well, particularly against Dick Bennett in 2000 and also with Big Dog Glenn Robinson in 1994 against Coach K and Duke.
Carsen Edwards unfurled one of the all-time great single-game performances in March history… and lost.
Kyle Guy — with the unreal second half — and Hunter, with his go-ahead bucket, overcame the shooting droughts which had plagued them this NCAA Tournament.
Purdue played its best NCAA Tournament since that Final Four year under Lee Rose in 1980… and wasn’t rewarded for it.
Virginia, a program which failed to make the Final Four as a No. 1 seed on five separate occasions — twice in the Terry Holland-Ralph Sampson years, three times this decade under Bennett — finally broke through.
One team and head coach were going to be absolutely heartbroken despite performing so well in a deeply defining moment. One team and head coach were going to shake off the chains of oppression and the sting of accumulated heartbreak.
What was going to be one instantly iconic triumph for a program was going to become the other program’s latest meeting with a gut punch.
On this scale and in this context, THIS — the marriage between game and backstory, the combination of on-court magic and off-court poignancy — is why Virginia-Purdue 2019 will be discussed many years from now in a manner similar to Duke-Kentucky 1992.
If a game owns that kind of stature, one doesn’t have to say anything more about its place in college basketball history.
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