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Preserving the glory

In the classic biopic “Patton,” the titular general describes an ancient Roman tradition. Slaves, George C. Scott related in his crusty voice, would stand behind victorious Roman conquerors during “triumph” parades and whisper in their ears, “All glory is fleeting.” Sobering as that anecdote may strike the Virginia community right now, reveling in its own triumph against a Duke program that many regard as the Lannisters of college basketball, it touches on an understanding vital to maintaining sanity in a chaotic world.

After his most significant win as Virginia’s head coach, I certainly hope Tony Bennett does not resort to anything as drastic as placing team managers behind his players and having them whisper things like “Your RPI could still be better!” to temper his players’ enthusiasm. After all, the team and the University as a whole will and should always cherish Thursday night as the night when a rollicking sold-out crowd of 14,593 helped the most likeable Virginia squad in years vanquish a hated enemy; the night when junior guard Joe Harris became the third-most beloved figure on Grounds behind Thomas Jefferson and Kathy the Newcomb card-swipe lady; and the night when the Corner generated more revenue than the last six “Resident Evil” movies combined. But tonight, in the end, was a dream. The Cavaliers must immediately reacclimatize to the very harsh reality that in the next few weeks, they will need to improve even further if they want to achieve the ultimate goal of a deep NCAA Tournament run.

By no means, however, does that necessitate that Virginia and its now fully-invested fanbase should not strive with every sinew to remember what this feels like. In fact, for Virginia to reach the heights it showed tonight it is capable of reaching, it must use the desire to recapture Thursday night’s bliss to persist through the trials ahead—and remember that hard work and resilience played the primary roles in facilitating this win.

Any discussion of the game in question—and, really, of Virginia’s 2012-3 campaign—must begin with Harris. While his career-high 36 point eruption likely functioned to “introduce” Harris to the nation, his performance really just confirmed everything the indoctrinated knew and admired about him. Whereas Duke counterpart Seth Curry racked up 28 points with what many pundits would call “unconscious” 3-point shooting, Harris delivered his masterpiece in a very conscious manner. Namely, he worked his tookus off, notching a career-high 10 free throws, crashing the offensive boards and generally pummeling the Blue Devils with the sheer force of his competitiveness. Even his early departure with 40 seconds left to a fifth foul stemmed from his zealous defensive effort, as he chased around Curry on ball screens like a Kardashian chasing publicity. He is the ACC Player of the Year, regardless of what any media poll might eventually declare, and he achieved that esteemed distinction the right way—at the price of his own sweat and ego.

“It’s not like I did it by myself at all,” Harris said. “…Fortunately enough, I was able to make a few baskets.”

The funny thing about that quote? He’s absolutely right: despite the lopsided stat line, contributions from the Virginia supporting cast played a crucial role in swinging the contest. Foremost among the Robins to Harris’ Batman, junior forward Akil Mitchell did exactly what he had to to enable his team to win: use his quickness and athleticism to reduce Duke center Mason Plumlee from an All-American caliber big man to the next incarnation of Hasheem Thabeet. Mitchell’s 19-point, 12-rebound, 9-made-free throws provide an accurate empirical portrait of the relentless physicality which he inflicted on the Blue Devils front line.

And there were other Cavaliers who, while failing to impact the box score, also changed the game’s trajectory. Freshman Justin Anderson joined Mitchell in double-teaming the much larger Plumlee, limiting the Duke goliath to just five shot attempts, while sophomore guard Paul Jesperson—often pegged unfairly as the lovable dweeb on the Virginia roster—made all the Jesperson-ish hustle plays that contribute to the Cavaliers with their hard-nosed, gritty identity. For their efforts, the Virginia players got to experience the kind of satisfaction very few people in this world ever do. They got to celebrate as thousands of fans cascaded toward them, to feel the exuberance of conquering kings being lifted on high by the masses.

It is to the crowd that I now direct my praise, since the groundswell of support that accompanied this game transformed an important, resume-boosting win into a seminal cultural event for this University. Like it or not, the Virginia athletics department has at best a checkered relationship with its fanbase: admirers turn out in droves for the winners while the losing programs—including football and, until the Bennett renaissance, men’s basketball—lose fans to scorn and apathy. Nevertheless, the fans emulated their players’ work-ethic tonight. They waited in the cold, they screamed, they paid attention to the action, and they even directed some well-conceived “Little Brother” jabs at Curry, younger brother of NBA star Stephen. In short, the Cavalier faithful tonight became a fanbase of which any program would be proud. And in large part because of that evolution, Virginia fans spurred their team to victory and experienced their nirvana, as well.

My broader point about Thursday night, then, is hardly groundbreaking but worth remembering: life’s perfect moments arise from hard-work, integrity, and persistence. Indubitably, the Cavaliers will crash back down to Earth at some point before this season ends, perhaps as soon as Sunday’s sneakily tricky road trip to Boston College. I can only hope that when Virginia does descend from this peak to the valley, the team and its fans remember that the peak was worth the arduous, challenging, unforgiving climb back up.

If they can manage that? Well, perhaps tonight’s glory can survive for a while after all.

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