Historic loss gives way to historic joy

U.Va. celebrates after winning first NCAA men’s basketball championship

sports-life

As the final whistle sounded on Monday, students around Grounds rushed towards the intersection of University Avenue and 14th street.  

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

As the final whistle sounded on Monday, students around Grounds poured out of their apartments, out of bars, out of John Paul Jones Arena and rushed towards the intersection of University Avenue and 14th street. Pulled towards each other by magnetic joy, we formed an exultant mob of orange and blue, of sweat and laughter. The raucous throng stretched from White Spot all the way around the Corner to Wertland Street. People cheered from the Wertland and 14th parking garage balcony. Students climbed on top of cars and danced. Some intrepid fans climbed onto the train bridge and shouted their joy while clinging to the rusted, precarious ledge. I hugged strangers, strangers hugged me. We bounced off each other, a churning horde of delight.

As I jogged into the street with my friends, I kept saying the same sentence aloud over and over again to myself, to my friends and to any stranger I passed —“We’re national champions. We’re national champions. We’re national champions!” 

When moments like this leave us speechless, sometimes the best we can do is to simply state the facts over and over again. I had to keep saying it. I had to convince myself it was true.

Bit by bit, the mob turned and headed for the Lawn. Music blasted from rooms on both sides of the grass. Hundreds of students celebrated by streaking, laughing and shouting as they made their way down the steps and sprinted off towards the south end of the Lawn. Naked bodies flew through the dusk. Abandoned clothes were left draped all over the steps of the Rotunda. Electric happiness reverberated through the bricks and columns of the University’s historic center. 

Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played from one Lawn room. It’s the cheesiest song in the world, but it couldn’t have been more perfect for that moment. 

Sports hold a unique power to spark these waves of collective joy. College provides a unique opportunity to revel in that joy. Collective terror, then — swish! — total exultation. A dizzying spectrum of human emotions experienced all together in the space of just a few seconds. Nothing else I’ve experienced can achieve quite the same effect.

In November, in the wake of a heartbreaking football loss to Virginia Tech, I wrote a column about Virginia sports and losing — two things that seemed inextricably connected. Our men’s basketball team’s March Madness losses alone comprise an impressive list. Five years ago, we were favored against Michigan State and lost. Four years ago, we were again favored against Michigan State and again lost. Three years ago, Syracuse upset us, and the year after that, we posted just 39 points in a blowout loss against Florida. Then, of course, there was UMBC. I’m a fourth-year. I’m from Charlottesville. Each of these losses is etched into my brain. But now, they look a little different.

If you wrote this season as a movie, Hollywood executives would dump the script in the garbage. It’s too perfect. The redemption arc is too clean. One year ago, this team suffered the most embarrassing loss in the history of college basketball. This week, they hoisted the ultimate college basketball trophy. 

There’s no question that this season doesn’t happen without last season. The 2019 Cavaliers played with unsurpassed grit and unity and determination. As usual, Coach Tony Bennett said it best, “If you learn to use it right — the adversity — it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn't have gone any other way.” 

Each win was more magical than the next. Mamadi Diakite’s shot against Purdue. Kyle Guy’s precise free throws under pressure against Auburn. De’Andre Hunter’s last-ditch equalizer against Texas Tech. If you’re lucky, you get to watch one win like that in your life as a sports fan. We got three in nine days. 

After the win, after the partying, I sat on the Lawn almost until sunrise. I wanted to feel the grass and dirt on my palms. I wanted to feel the spring evening on my skin. I wanted to savor that moment of joy. The lights on the Rotunda twinkled in front of me. 

Now, I sit writing this column on the afternoon of the day after the game. Nearby music and cheering floats through the orange-and-blue sky. The celebrations haven’t slowed yet. Moments like these happen maybe once in a lifetime — and everyone here is determined to make this moment last as long as possible.

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