By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MINNEAPOLIS – In the stands at U.S. Bank Stadium, as the final seconds of overtime ticked off the clock, Joe Harris reflected on another night, one that came much earlier in Tony Bennett’s tenure as the University of Virginia’s head men’s basketball coach.
Long before the Cavaliers established themselves as national powers, they were in Durham, N.C., to play mighty Duke. During a shootaround at Cameron Indoor Stadium the night before a game in 2011, the players were on the court when they noticed Bennett was no longer with them.
Then they heard him calling to them. They looked up and saw Bennett high in the stands at Cameron, jumping up and down and pointing to Duke’s NCAA championship banners.
“He said, ‘This is what we’re reaching for,’ ” said Harris, who’s now with the Brooklyn Nets.
Harris smiled. “And we did it.”
The moment toward which the Cavaliers had been building in their 10 seasons under Bennett arrived Monday night. Before a crowd of 72,062 and a national television audience, UVA defeated Texas Tech 85-77 in overtime to capture the first NCAA title in program history.
In his office at John Paul Jones Arena, Bennett has a poster from the film Rocky that shows the title character on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bennett would tell his players, he said late Monday night, that he just wanted a chance at a title fight one day.
“That’s all we want,” Bennett said, “and these guys came to fight in this title [bout], and now we are the champs.”
The championship came about 13 months after the Wahoos made a different kind of history in last year’s NCAA tournament. Virginia became the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed, falling to UMBC in Charlotte, N.C.
“It’s a great story,” Bennett said at his postgame press conference late Monday night. “That’s probably the best way I can end this. It’s a great story.”
Without the contributions of 6-9 redshirt junior Mamadi Diakite, who had nine points and seven rebounds, and 6-8 junior Braxton Key, who came off the bench to score six points and grab a game-high 10 rebounds, the Cavaliers (35-3) might not have won. But it’s impossible to overstate the impact of UVA’s Big Three: 6-5 junior Ty Jerome, 6-2 junior Kyle Guy and 6-7 redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter.
Jerome totaled 16 points, eight assists, six rebounds and only one turnover, and Guy scored 24 points and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
That award could have gone to Hunter, who enrolled at UVA with Guy and Jerome in 2016. After a first half in which he missed 7 of 8 shots from the floor, Hunter turned in one of the most memorable performances in UVA history.
“He saved his best for last,” Bennett said.
Hunter finished with a career-high 27 points and also had nine rebounds. Equally important, he helped limit Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, who like Hunter is a projected first-round NBA draft pick, into a miserable outing. Culver scored 15 points but was only 5 of 22 from the floor.
“He’s a great player,” Culver said of Hunter. “Athletic. He played me well tonight.”
Hunter said: “I dreamed of this as a kid, just having a great game on the biggest stage in college basketball.”
He was 4 for 5 from beyond the 3-point arc, and two of those treys rank among the most pivotal in Final Four history.
On the first, Hunter took a pass from Jerome and buried a 3-pointer from the right corner to tie the game at 68-68 with 12.9 seconds left in regulation.
The second, again off a Jerome assist, put UVA ahead for good, 75-73, with 2:06 in overtime. That was part of the 11-0 run with which the Hoos seized command in the extra period.
“He’s a quiet kid,” associate head coach Jason Williford said of Hunter, a Philadelphia native. “He doesn’t have that New York swag that Ty’s got, but he’s got a quiet confidence, and I think at times he’s just got to assert himself, and he did it tonight. I couldn’t be prouder of the kid. I told him that after the game. That’s how you step up.”
The final horn triggered a celebration for the ages Monday night, on the court, in the stands and back in Charlottesville. At U.S. Bank Stadium, confetti fell, as did tears, as UVA’s players, coaches, administrators and staffers embraced each other on the court.
Former players such as Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, Devon Hall and Justin Anderson beamed with pride and mingled with the current Cavaliers. In the stands stood many other UVA basketball alumni, including legends Barry Parkhill and Ralph Sampson, as well as several players Bennett coached at Washington State before coming to Charlottesville in 2009.
On the court, Bennett savored the title with his wife and their children, as well as his mother, Anne, and his father, Dick, the legendary former coach whom Tony succeeded at Washington State.
Dick Bennett, who guided Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000 – his son was a volunteer manager on that team — nervously followed the championship game as it unfolded Monday night.
“Words aren’t very accurate when your emotions outrun them, and that’s kind of where I am right now,” the elder Bennett said.
Not far away were UVA’s president, Jim Ryan, and athletic director, Carla Williams, as well as Williams’ predecessor as AD, Craig Littlepage, who hired Tony Bennett back in 2009. Also in the joyous throng were such notable UVA alumni as Chris Long, Tiki Barber and Katie Couric.
“This is surreal,” said Anderson, who now plays for the Atlanta Hawks.
After Bennett cut down the final strand of the net, the Cavaliers returned to the platform on which they’d received the NCAA championship trophy and turned their attention to the videoboard. They watched, transfixed, as the traditional finale to the NCAA tournament – CBS’ One Shining Moment video – played.
“I’ve watched every single One Shining Moment, every single one,” Jerome said. “And we watched it last year, and last year it [showed] Kyle and me walking off the court after the UMBC game, Kyle with his head down, and I put my hand on his head. So to this year, to watch it like that was unbelievable.”
Little came easily in this NCAA tournament for Virginia (35-3), the only No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four. In the Cavaliers’ first-round game, they trailed No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb by 14 points in the first half before rallying for a 71-56 win.
There was less suspense in the Hoos’ second-round win over Oklahoma, but they had to rally late to defeat Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen, and their next two games produced almost indescribable drama.
In the Elite Eight, UVa needed a miraculous sequence at the end of regulation to force overtime against Purdue. Then, in the first NCAA semifinal Saturday night, junior guard Kyle Guy scored six points in the final 7.4 seconds – the final three coming on free throws with six-tenths of a second left – to lift Virginia past Auburn and into its first NCAA championship game.
“I think we’ve taken every experience that we’ve been through together and tried to use it in a way that could propel us to a national championship,” Guy said.
Bennett said: “I never thought of myself being a national championship coach. I wasn’t even going to really get into coaching. I wasn’t crazy about it. I loved playing, and then I saw my dad’s team go to the Final Four. I was a volunteer manager, and I got into it. I love the young men. I love the game. But it’s not my end all, be all.
“I think there was a bigger plan going on here, and I didn’t need it, but I was used in it. I hope that it’s a message for some people out there that there can be hope and joy and resiliency. I’m thankful for what happened. That’s why I did what I did at the end. When that horn went off, I just put my head down and said, ‘Thank you. I’m humbled, Lord, because I don’t deserve to be in this spot, but You chose me to be here, and I’ll give thanks.’ ”
The championship game matched two of the nation’s premier defensive teams. UVA held Texas Tech (31-7) without a field goal for nearly eight minutes to start the game. But the Red Raiders heated up from beyond the arc, and Virginia’s lead was only three at halftime.
Midway through the second half, the Cavaliers led 53-43, and a one-sided victory seemed possible. Texas Tech refused to cooperate. The Red Raiders rallied to tie the game at 59-59 with 3:28 to play and took their first lead of the second half on a Culver layup with 35.1 seconds left.
That put Texas Tech up 66-65, and after Jerome missed a runner, Norense Odiase hit two free throws to make it 68-65 with 22.5 seconds remaining. Once again, the Cavaliers were in peril. Once again, they fought back. Once again, they prevailed.
In overtime, the Hoos were 12 for 12 from the line.
“The game was everything we thought it would be,” Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard said. “I thought it would come down to one last possession, and it did in regulation, and then in overtime it just got away from us a little bit. Nothing but respect for [the Cavaliers’] program, their coaches, their players, their fans. I thought it was a great national championship game.”
It was a game the UVA basketball family will never forget.
The championship, said Williford, who played for the Cavaliers in the 1990s, is “for everybody, from Parkhill to Ralph to my crew [and the teams that came after]. And then you got all the guys we coached.
“It’s for all of those basketball alums. It’s for all the alumni. It’s for everybody. It’s a great day to be a Wahoo.”
Anderson said: “It’s a beautiful thing to watch and it’s a great thing to be a part of.”
Williford took over as associate head coach last spring after Ron Sanchez left UVA to become head coach at Charlotte. Sanchez flew to Minneapolis for the Final Four to support his former team and his mentor, Bennett. Sanchez also worked for Bennett at Washington State, as did Ronnie Wideman, Virginia’s associate AD for men’s basketball.
“Can you believe this?” Wideman asked Sanchez as they wrapped each other in a bear hug.