To be sure, the most emotionally potent and historically resonant aspect of the 2019 men’s baskteball national championship won by the Virginia Cavaliers is that they lost the first 16-over-1 game in NCAA Tournament history, and rebounded from it in 13 months to win the program’s first national title.
That is clearly and accurately the core and the zenith and the essence of this team. It took a historically shattering defeat and turned it into ultimate victory.
When anyone writes the story of the 2019 Virginia Cavaliers 10, 20 or 50 years from now, the transformation from the devastation following the UMBC loss will always belong in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. No one will argue this point. It is an amazing story, and it lends a lot of Hollywood magic to a highly substantive team which fought through so many tough situations in this NCAA Tournament to turn a dream into reality.
Yet, as great as the UMBC angle is after Virginia’s title (side note — how great is it that UMBC’s Twitter account applauded UVA for winning?), one needs to step in and underscore the point that Virginia overcame so much more than its historic 2018 loss to get to this point. What Virginia and coach Tony Bennett have been through as a program owns so many soul-crushing moments which did not prevent the Cavaliers from finally running down their dream in Minneapolis.
Virginia was a No. 1 seed back in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers ran into Tom Izzo, a March master, and were knocked out in the Sweet 16.
The lazy bracketers on the selection committee gave Virginia a middle finger the next year in 2015, putting seventh-seeded Michigan State in Virginia’s second-round portion of the bracket, and the Spartans played another great game to knock UVA out for a second consecutive season.
Then came the game which could have shattered a program for a long time — and has certainly crushed other programs who experienced something similar: the 2016 loss to Syracuse in the Elite Eight.
Virginia was in control of that game against the Orange. Virginia was a 1 seed playing against a 10 seed from its own conference. Virginia had veteran players, playing against a familiar opponent. This should have been an easy game to finish. Yet, in one of those moments you can’t explain — except to say THIS IS MARCH!!! — a veteran group of Hoos collapsed under pressure. It happened (kinda like UVA allowing that 14-0 run to Auburn late on Saturday, out of nowhere).
What seemed like a sure trip to the Final Four turned into devastation.
Iowa blew a big lead over UNLV in the 1987 West Regional final in Seattle, and it hasn’t been back to the Elite Eight since.
Providence lost a heartbreaker in overtime to Arizona in the 1997 Southeast Regional final in Birmingham. It hasn’t been back to the Elite Eight since.
These moments might seem to be temporary setbacks, and in many cases they are, but for some programs — also think of St. John’s, which didn’t play its best against Ohio State in the 1999 Southeast Regional final and hasn’t been back to the Elite Eight in the past 20 years — a stinging loss leads to a prolonged walk in the desert wilderness.
Virginia followed its 2016 loss to Syracuse with a relatively ordinary season — a 5 seed — and a blowout loss in the round of 32 in the 2017 NCAA Tournament against the Florida Gators.
It was very easy to wonder, in that moment two years ago, if Virginia’s moment had come and gone.
Only THEN came the UMBC loss, created in part by the injury to the man who brought life full-circle for the Hoos against Texas Tech: De’Andre Hunter, the man who played his best basketball in the final half and the final overtime period of his team’s season.
The UMBC loss will always be the first thing one associates with this Virginia team, and rightly so. Yet, from the twin losses to Tom Izzo to the shock of blowing the lead against Syracuse on the doorstep of the Final Four, to the humiliation at the hands of Florida, Tony Bennett had to walk over a lot of hot coals before the UMBC setback.
Virginia, at the end of the 2010s — like Connecticut and Jim Calhoun throughout the 1990s — ran into one wrenching March exit after another before finally making the Final Four and winning it at the end of a remarkable decade.
This is a story which was a decade in the making, since Bennett first came to Charlottesville from Washington State in 2009. The story was six years in the making since the 2013-2014 Virginia team began to establish the Cavaliers at a higher level in the architecture of college basketball.
The story was three years in the making since the loss to Syracuse, the loss which genuinely made some people wonder if Virginia would ever make the Final Four and get a chance to chase down its first national title.
Yes, the UMBC loss is and should — and always will — be the first thing you or I or anyone will associate with these national champions in 2019. Yet, the story of Virginia’s rise to the mountaintop contained so many more obstacles, and gut-punches, and dark nights of the basketball soul.
The 2019 season and its remarkably great fortune didn’t merely represent cosmic payback for 2018; that payback covered many more fees and penalties.
Tony Bennett’s faith that his and his program’s hard work would be rewarded was not misplaced. Now he has the national championship trophy to prove it.
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