By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – John Paul Jones Arena was not available for the championship celebration Saturday afternoon. Even if it had been, Virginia coach Tony Bennett was told, the 14,623-seat arena couldn’t have handled all the fans who wanted to pay tribute to his basketball team.
Bennett was skeptical. “I was like, ‘Come on,’ ” he said.
At about 2:25 p.m. Saturday, his thinking changed. Bennett emerged from the home locker room at Scott Stadium, saw the multitudes in the stands, and was reminded that it’s a mistake to underestimate the ardor of fans for these Cavallers.
A crowd of 21,000, many of whose members had entered the stadium at 12:30 p.m., was waiting for the Wahoos, who on Monday night had capped their 10th season under Bennett with an overtime victory over Texas Tech in the NCAA championship game in Minneapolis.
“I’m in awe of this,” Bennett told the crowd. “This is more than I ever expected, so thank you for being here. This is a great day to celebrate.”
It was a day for which UVA fans have been waiting for decades. Before this season, the Hoos had advanced to the Final Four twice – in 1981 and ’84 – but each time they lost in the semifinals. (UVA came back and won the final third-place game in ’81.)
In 2018, Virginia entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, only to make history by losing to No. 16 seed UMBC in the first round.
“To be back a year later and be here is the best story in college basketball history,” former UVA great Ralph Sampson told the crowd at Scott Stadium.
Virginia, which shared the ACC’s regular-season title, entered this NCAA tournament as the South Region’s No. 1 seed. This year, there were no hurdles the Cavaliers couldn’t clear in the NCAA tournament.
His team, Bennett said, was “strengthened by the blow that cut us down last year.”
Even so, little came easily for the Hoos in the postseason. In the NCAA tournament, they needed memorable comebacks to get past Gardner-Webb, Purdue, Auburn and Texas Tech. Moreover, in the Cavaliers’ Sweet Sixteen victory over Oregon, they trailed late in the second half.
“They’re part of one of the greatest stories that I’ve ever seen written, and it’ll be told over and over again,” Bennett said.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words for what we accomplished,” junior guard Kyle Guy said.
Dave Koehn, the play-by-play announcer on UVA radio broadcasts, is never at a loss for words, and he was master of ceremonies Saturday. Koehn introduced several speakers, including Sampson and athletics director Carla Williams, before the team came out of the locker room and took the stage.
“As sad as we were last year, we’re pretty happy right now,” said Sampson, who led the Cavaliers to the Final Four in 1981.
When it was Williams’ turn to address the crowd, she took the microphone and surveyed the scene before her.
“You have no idea how amazing you look right now,” Williams told the crowd.
Williams said she believes “sports brings people together, all kinds of people,” and that the Cavaliers’ run to the NCAA title was a unifying force for not only UVA and the Charlottesville community, but for the entire Commonwealth.
“And for that I am thankful,” Williams said.
Koehn later had brief Q&A sessions with seven players: Guy, junior guard Ty Jerome, redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter, freshman guard Kihei Clark, fifth-year senior center Jack Salt, redshirt junior forward Mamadi Diakite and junior forward Braxton Key.
“This has been amazing,” said Salt, who’s been part of teams that won 118 games. “Thanks to Coach Bennett for letting me come here. I’ve had an amazing experience.”
The Cavaliers’ theme all season has been United Pursuit, and Bennett saw a “united celebration” at the stadium Saturday.
“This community has been through a lot,” Bennett said. “[UVA’s championship run] is healing in so many ways, and that was not lost on any of us.”
During the regular season, the Cavaliers went 18-2 away from John Paul Jones Arena. One of those victories came Jan. 12 at Littlejohn Coliseum, where Virginia defeated Clemson 63-43.
On its way to the arena that morning, UVA’s team bus passed Clemson Memorial Stadium, where tens of thousands of fans had turned out to celebrate the school’s national title in football.
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, what would that be like if we ever won a national championship?’ And you know what? That day is now!” Bennett told the crowd at Scott Stadium, to deafening applause.
Throughout the celebration, highlights played on the HooVision videoboard, allowing fans to relive some of the countless memorable moments from this historic season, including Clark’s assist on Diakite’s buzzer-beater against Purdue, Guy’s late 3-pointer and three free throws against Auburn, and Jerome’s pass to Hunter for a game-tying trey against Texas Tech.
“It’ll be a memory forever,” Bennett said.
Likewise, no one who was at Scott Stadium on Saturday – or watched the celebration online – will soon forget seeing and hearing Francesco Badocchi, a redshirt freshman forward from Italy, play One Shining Moment on the piano placed for him on stage.
Songs played over the PA included two whose messages resonated with Bennett: Kaleena Zanders’ Stronger Than I’ve Ever Been and Andy Grammer’s Back Home.
As the fans filed out of the stadium, Guy and Bennett held a brief press conference in Scott Stadium’s media room.
Bennett asked about the size of the crowd. When told that 21,000 fans had attended, he and Guy marveled at the figure.
“That’s insane,” Guy said. “It was amazing just to be able to witness that with my coaches and my teammates.”