A year ago, the Virginia men’s basketball team found itself in an unprecedented position as they were the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA history. As the game winded down, the Cavaliers’ players sat chillingly still on the bench, helplessly watching the making of history. At the final buzzer, players were in tears and the world of college basketball had found a headline that would stick with Virginia for the next year. The UMBC taunts, the doubts about the Cavaliers’ ability to win in the tournament and the endless questions about how anyone could come back from such a loss all followed this team like a shadow.
Virginia cruised to another successful 2018-2019 regular season — the Cavaliers won a share of the ACC regular season title, and had just two losses in ACC play. For the second year in a row, Virginia was dominant in regular season play.
Yet as the postseason approached, the loss to the Retrievers lingered. As the top-seeded Cavaliers were eliminated from the ACC Tournament in the semifinal round against Florida State, some critics believed it would be another early exit for Virginia. As Virginia trailed by double-digits to No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the critics’ skepticism appeared to be validated. History looked poised to repeat itself.
But unlike last year, Virginia persevered this time around. The Cavaliers dismantled the Runnin’ Bulldogs in the second half, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2016, easing past No. 9 seed Oklahoma. The rest of their tournament was not easy, however — the Cavaliers had to continue to persevere.
“Just keep knocking,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “Sometimes the door gets slammed in your face, but maybe you can get your foot in the door, your shoulder, and if you keep knocking, perhaps you can bust it wide open. And these guys are certainly showing that.”
Against No. 3 seed Purdue, Virginia trailed by three points with five seconds left and needed a miraculous buzzer-beater from junior forward Mamadi Diakite to advance to the program’s first Final Four since 1984. Against No. 5 seed Auburn, Virginia trailed by four points with less than 20 seconds remaining and needed magic from junior guard Kyle Guy to advance to the championship game. Guy sank three free throws with steely composure to send the Cavaliers to their first-ever National Championship game.
On April 8, Virginia completed the ultimate redemption ride as they defeated Texas Tech to win the program’s first ever National Championship title. The players were overjoyed, Coach Bennett finally got to cut down the nets on the biggest stage and a new headline defined this team.
“To be able to hug each other with the confetti going and say we did it is the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt in basketball,” Guy said.
While that in itself is a terrific story, this championship is about more than rewriting the script that has been imposed on Virginia since last year’s NCAA Tournament — this program hasn't just been through the infamous UMBC game.
They’ve also been through the Syracuse Elite Eight game of 2016, where the Cavaliers blew a 15-point second-half lead to a No. 10 seed Orange team. They’ve been through a Sweet Sixteen matchup against Michigan State in 2014, where they lost in an absolute heartbreaker by two points. They’ve been through having one of the best college basketball players of all time, Ralph Sampson, and never picking up an ACC Tournament title or an appearance in the National Championship game.
For Cavalier faithful, Virginia seemed to be the team that came close but couldn’t go all the way. And for Cavalier critics, every loss seemed to be proof of what was wrong with Virginia’s style and system.
Monday night’s championship game certainly came close to adhering to the program’s past. The Cavaliers, who had been leading by 10 in the second half, were trailing by three with 22 seconds left on the clock, and a heartbreaker was on the horizon. But with 14 seconds of play left, sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter — who had been quiet in the first half before exploding with a monster second half — drained a three. Just as with the previous two rounds, Virginia wasn’t going away.
Coach Bennett called his team “as resilient and tough-minded as I’ve seen.”
In overtime, the Cavaliers came out and played with a killer confidence. They didn’t appear flustered or fazed by the pressure, going a perfect 12-12 on free throws in the extra five minutes of play. The steady play guided them to a 85-77 win and the national championship that had eluded the program for so long.
“Every time [the team] comes into my office, I’ve got a poster of Rocky on the steps,” Coach Bennett said. “I told them, ‘I just want a chance at a title fight one day.’ That’s all we want and these guys came to fight in this title and we are the champs.”
This 2019 title carries so much weight. For supporters, it’s relief and happiness. For the Virginia critics, it’s pushback against the narrative that Virginia can’t win in March. For the players and Bennett, is means overcoming demons and making their dreams come true. For everyone, this moment is Virginia permanently cementing itself in the history of the sport as champions.