By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MINNEAPOLIS – For nearly a week, the Marquette Hotel served as home base for University of Virginia men’s basketball team during the Final Four. The Cavaliers ate, slept, watched film, and visited with their families there.
Mamadi Diakite was the first player down for breakfast Tuesday at the Marquette. He hadn’t slept much, but his mood was upbeat.
“I can’t stop smiling,” Diakite said.
Who could blame him? About 10 hours earlier, the Cavaliers had reached the summit of their sport, defeating Texas Tech 85-77 in overtime to secure the first NCAA title in program history.
A 6-9 redshirt junior from Guinea, Diakite scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds. Other standouts for the Wahoos included junior forward Braxton Key, who pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds, and the three players who have led the team all season: junior guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy and redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter.
“To share it with this special group of guys is unreal,” Jerome said late Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” Hunter said.
Hunter, who played superb defense on Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver, scored 22 of his career-high 27 points after intermission to lead Virginia (35-3).
“He’s an amazing player, but beyond that, he’s an amazing person, and he deserves whatever he gets with his basketball [career],” Virginia center Jack Salt, a fifth-year senior, said of Hunter.
The Hoos’ flight home to Charlottesville on Tuesday afternoon was bumpy at times, which was perhaps fitting for a team that encountered significant obstacles in its NCAA tournament journey.
None proved to be insurmountable. These Cavaliers were as mentally tough as they were talented.On Monday night, a crowd of 72,062 at U.S. Bank Stadium saw Virginia rally late in the second half for the third straight game.
Two of those games – UVA’s wins over Purdue in the Elite Eight and Texas Tech in the final – went to overtime. In the other, Guy scored six points in the final 7.4 seconds to lift Virginia past Auburn in the semifinals.
“We just play until that buzzer sounds,” Jerome said. “We all believe in each other, and it’s the most special team I’ve ever been on.”
Hunter: “It’s crazy. We were destined to win.”
In a story Hollywood could have scripted, the Cavaliers’ calamitous 2017-18 finale forged the bond that united them this season in their pursuit of a championship. In the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament, UVA became the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed, falling to UMBC in Charlotte, N.C.
“It was humiliation, embarrassment for ourselves and our families and the program,” said Guy, who was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. “To be able to redeem all that and get this program something that’s never happened before is all that I could ever want.”
The UMBC loss “drew us even closer together, and it made us enjoy every part of [this] season even more, and made us enjoy each other’s company more on the road,” Jerome said. “We grew closer together off the court.”
Overseeing it all, of course, was Tony Bennett, who’s built a national power in his 10 seasons as the Cavaliers’ head coach. The win over Texas Tech improved Bennett’s record at UVA to 254-89, with seven trips to the NCAA tournament.
For the past four seasons, his assistants have included Brad Soderberg, who played for Bennett’s father, Dick, at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and later coached under the elder Bennett at Wisconsin.
Soderberg has been a head coach at several schools, including Saint Louis. He said he was confident Tony Bennett would eventually break through and win an NCAA title.
“You can’t guarantee anything in this business, but he is elite,” Soderberg said in UVA’s locker room after the championship game. “If you make a list of the 10 things every coach has to have to some degree – [for example] they’ve got to be recruiters, they have to have an on-court disposition, they have to have great Xs and Os knowledge, they have to have a story to tell – Tony is A-plus, A-plus, A-plus, A-plus.
“I know I’m a Bennett myself, basically, so it’s a biased opinion. But I’m not joking. I’ve been around a long time. I’ve worked with a lot of guys. I haven’t been with a guy like this. His knowledge of the game, his interaction with players is real and genuine. His disposition on the bench is uncanny. His poise under pressure is unbelievable. You just don’t find that.”
The loss to UMBC, Bennett has acknowledged, hurt him deeply. But it didn’t change his values, he said after the NCAA final.
“You have a scar, and it reminds you of that, but it’s a memory,” Bennett said. “Does it go away completely? No. I wish it wouldn’t have happened in some ways. Now I say, well, it bought us a ticket here. So be it.
“I’m thankful in a way for what happened because it did, it drew me closer, most importantly, to my faith in the Lord, drew me closer to my wife and children, just because you realize what’s unconditional. In those spots when the world’s telling you you’re a failure, you’re a loser, and you’re the worst thing going, and all that stuff, you say, OK, what really matters? And it pushed me to that in a way.
“Then it drove me. I think as a staff we became better. We had to look at how can we change if we’re in this spot again and we play certain teams, and we adjusted to things. Again, that helped, all the lessons from that.”
For Bennett’s players, Guy said, to “be able to give him a national championship and do it for him, the program, and our families, it means the world, and I wish I had the words, but it still does not feel real.”
If the NCAA title is a milestone the Cavaliers will savor forever, their homecoming Tuesday was special too. Fans were waiting at Charlottesville Albemarle Airport when UVA’s charter flight landed, and they cheered the players and coaches as the team disembarked.
With a police escort, the Hoos then bused to John Paul Jones Arena. On both sides of Airport Road and Route 29 stood fans who waved and cheered as the buses passed.
That was a prelude for what awaited the Cavaliers at JPJ, where thousands of jubilant fans welcomed the team home. Guy addressed the crowd briefly, as did Bennett.
“I guess this really happened. I guess we won the national championship,” Bennett said, to loud cheers. “What these guys did under the bright lights was amazing. I just felt like I was going along for the ride.”
A more formal celebration of the championship season will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at Scott Stadium. For information on that event, click on this link.