On April 8, 2019, Virginia made history by winning its first-ever men’s basketball national championship. The victory was a program-defining moment for the Virginia community and elicited intense reactions, emotions and memories. Even over a year later, those feelings are still as fresh as ever in the minds of Virginia fans.
While the Cavaliers’ win sent shockwaves across the community, the moment was particularly memorable for current University students who get to count the victory as one of their many college memories.
For fourth-year College student Overton Ragland, a life-long college sports fan, Virginia’s strong athletics program was one of the reasons he chose to attend the University in the first place. His love for the Cavaliers even led him to drive 18 hours with four of his best friends to “witness history” in person at the national championship game.
“When we won the national championship, it did not feel real,” Ragland said. “There was no way we had just beat Purdue, Auburn and Texas Tech the way we did. It was just an incredible, emotional time for those that were in the arena.”
Many University students joined Ragland in Minneapolis, Minn., while others congregated in Charlottesville to cheer on Virginia. Fourth-year College student Josh Zabin was studying abroad at the time in Tajikistan — located nearly 7,000 miles away from Grounds in Central Asia. Zabin said he would hike up a mountain in the early morning just to get internet service to watch the games.
“No one had heard of U.Va.,” Zabin said. “No one understood my excitement or why I would be up at [4 a.m.] to watch a basketball game on my phone. The country has no reliable internet, and sometimes I would call my friends at U.Va. to get live updates.”
Beyond students like Ragland and Zabin, Virginia’s landmark championship is also a special memory for University alumni. These former students have witnessed firsthand how far the Virginia men’s basketball program has come as decades of progress culminated in a national title.
Class of 2006 alumnus Mike Ihrig has been a Virginia basketball fan since he was eight years old and, alongside his wife Brittany Collier, is a member of the Virginia Athletics Foundation. Confident in their favorite college team, Ihrig and Collier booked Final Four tickets when the package was first offered and secured flights to Minneapolis before Virginia’s Elite Eight matchup with Purdue. The pair, who were joined by two fellow alumni, had the unique experience of staying at the team hotel where they got the opportunity to interact with former Virginia basketball players, parents of current players and even Laurel Bennett — Coach Tony Bennett’s wife.
As much as Ihrig believed in the team, even he was worried that Virginia may not get past Auburn in the tournament semifinals and compete in the national title game.
“Towards the end of the Final [Four] game, we thought it might be over,” Ihrig said. “We were talking about what we were going to do the rest of the weekend … When the foul was announced, we knew that Kyle [Guy] was going to make all [three free throws]. As the joke goes, it was God's plan. It was a team of destiny.”
However, after Virginia took down Auburn and subsequently Texas Tech in the final game, Ihrig celebrated with friends, other fans and Ty Jerome’s father in the hotel lobby before flying back home.
When Class of 1993 alumna Stephanie Willett-Smith traveled to the Final Four game, the trip had the added bonus of sharing an “amazing experience” with the whole family. Willett-Smith cheered on the Cavaliers alongside her husband and fellow ‘Double Hoo,’ Mike, her son and current second-year College student, Connor, and her two younger daughters.
“What is most memorable for us is having followed U.Va. sports through good and bad times and getting to experience such a great run with our family,” Willett-Smith said.
Virginia’s 2019 tournament was also special because of the Cavaliers’ struggles in previous years.
“Fair or not, Bennett and Virginia’s style had been under attack since the team roared onto the national scene in the 2013-14 season, no more so than after Virginia lost to UMBC the year before,” said Robert Elder, Class of 2017 alumnus and former sports editor during The Cavalier Daily’s 127th term.
Elder further explained how winning a national title validated Virginia’s style of play, silenced the Cavaliers’ critics and relieved the program of the burden of winning its first championship. For Elder, Virginia’s entire tournament run was a dramatic story fit for a movie — from the first-round scare against Gardner Webb to the late-game finishes in the final three games.
“From a pure basketball perspective, it was just an amazing rush of joy and emotion,” Elder said. “To watch Virginia play as well as it did and win a national championship in front of a truly national audience was one of the greatest feelings I have ever experienced.”
Class of 2016 alumnus Gray Ellington echoed the significance of the Cavaliers’ inaugural title, especially for the emotional and dedicated Virginia faithful.
“[Making the] Final Four was necessary to just heal a lot of the pain from last year and to really just help this fan base sort of move on and find redemption just from the troubles of the past,” Ellington said.
Ellington also emphasized that the program’s accomplishment wasn’t simply a victory for the current team but for past Virginia basketball generations as well. From Ralph Sampson of the 1980s to Sean Singletary of the 2000s and Malcolm Brogdon of the early 2010s, the 2019 title was a victory for all Virginia players, past and present.
In addition to being a University alumnus, Ellington also manages the popular @wahoops_ Instagram account — a social media fan page dedicated to Virginia sports with more than 23,500 followers. While Ellington admitted the account grew quickly during the tournament, especially over Final Four weekend, his focus was still on watching the games.
“I was just enjoying the weekend,” Ellington said. “I mean, I felt like I was just a fan and I had people and kids coming up to me and recognizing me, but that was kind of the first time that that had ever happened. So that was interesting, but I also was fanboying and trying to meet all the former players.”
Ellington and other fans highlighted a common theme surrounding Virginia’s national championship success last year. The Cavaliers’ tournament performance wasn’t just an athletic achievement — it was an emotional release, a unifying event and, in Elder’s words, “something that can never be taken away and an experience we all get to relive every time we see the championship banner.”
When the final buzzer rang that fateful Monday night, members across the Virginia family — from Minneapolis to Tajikistan — were overwhelmed with feelings of pride, happiness and redemption. Even today, it's clear that those feelings have not faded.
“U.Va. basketball and all U.Va. sports programs are more than just sports,” Ragland said. “They bring together people that may have nothing in common, and I believe the national championship highlighted the greatness of the U.Va. community.”