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By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In his left hand he held a ticket from the 2018 basketball game in which the University of Virginia suffered a historic loss, a defeat that subjected the team’s players and coaches to months of pain and ridicule.
In his right hand was a ticket from the 2019 game in which the Cavaliers capped a heart-stopping postseason run by securing their first NCAA championship.
“Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” Tony Bennett told the thousands seated in front of him at John Paul Jones Arena, repeating lines from a hymn he’d previously invoked. “I think joy has come, don’t you?”
Many times over the past year, Bennett has mentioned the TED Talk given by a former Methodist minister, Donald Davis. The Cavaliers watched it in the aftermath of their loss to 16th-seeded UMBC in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament, and it inspired them throughout the season that followed.
Friday night at JPJ, during A Night With the National Champions, Bennett again cited one of Davis’ messages, a line that could not have been more fitting on this occasion.
“If you learn to use adversity right, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gotten to any other way,” Bennett told his rapt audience.
“I know I’m a little biased, but I think it’s one of the greatest sports stories ever told.”
There have been other celebrations over the past six months: one at Disharoon Park after the Wahoos clinched their first trip to the Final Four in 35 years; another outside JPJ after they returned from Minneapolis; a third at Scott Stadium, where a crowd of 21,000 paid tribute to the Hoos and their crowning achievement.
An exclamation point was added Friday night at JPJ, where the Cavaliers received their championship rings and, in a stirring finale, raised a championship banner.
“This will never be forgotten,” said Bennett, who’s heading into his 11th season at UVA.
Of the players from the 2018-19 team who are no longer at UVA, only starting center Jack Salt and reserve guard Marco Anthony were not able to make it back for the weekend. (The team will be honored Saturday night during the Virginia-Florida State football game at Scott Stadium.)
A video message from Salt, who’s back home in New Zealand, was played at JPJ, to cheers from the crowd, and more applause greeted De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, NBA rookies who took the stage for a question-and-answer session with master of ceremonies Dave Koehn.
“I miss this place tremendously already, so any time I get to be back here is awesome,” Jerome said earlier in the evening. “I miss these guys tremendously. I miss these coaches tremendously. We were so united as a team, on and off the court last year, it’s tough to ever find that again.”
Hunter hit two clutch 3-pointers against Texas Tech late in the NCAA championship game, each off a pass from Jerome: the first in the final minute of regulation, the second in overtime. As the final second ticked off the clock in OT, Hunter joyously flung the ball high into the air at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
“I always wanted to do that,” he said Friday night, smiling.
To have Hunter, Guy and Jerome back at JPJ was fantastic, Mamadi Diakite said, and to see stirring videos of the Cavaliers’ postseason run brought back wonderful memories for the fifth-year senior.
“I feel like those moments happened yesterday,” said Diakite, sporting his championship ring, which the players designed. “I can still think about every little moment of the game and the tournament.”
The first of the night’s many standing ovations was for UVA athletics director Carla Williams and UVA president Jim Ryan, who walked to the stage together.
“Thank you for your perseverance, thank you for your fortitude, thank you for your commitment to each other,” Williams told the team before reading a congratulatory letter to the Cavaliers from the secret Seven Society.
Ryan presented Bennett with a framed photograph that included graphics depicting the obstacles Virginia faced at critical stages of its final three games in the NCAA tournament.
With six seconds left against Purdue in the Elite Eight, the Cavaliers had a nine-percent chance of winning. With seven seconds left against Auburn in the NCAA semifinals, the Hoos had an 8.7-percent chance of winning, and with 22 seconds left in the second half against Texas Tech in the NCAA title game, Virginia had a 25-percent chance of winning.
On the bottom of the photograph was written:
For Those Times When The Odds Might Be Getting You Down
“For those of you who had faith in this team, it was perfectly placed,” Ryan said.
Bennett said it’s been exhilarating for him to go back and watch his team’s NCAA tournament games.
“It’s funny, in the moment, you watch ’em and it’s intense and you’re thinking about things [as a coach],” Bennett said. “And then when you watch it as a spectator on TV, I was like, ‘Oh, this is close. This is a nervous moment. What’s going to happen? Did we win?’ But it was a different feeling, it was, and I enjoyed it.”
Most memorable for Bennett was Virginia’s win over Purdue in Louisville, Kentucky, where Boilermaker fans made up most of the crowd at the KFC Yum! Center. The enduring memory from that game is probably UVA point guard Kihei Clark’s remarkable pass to Diakite for a last-second basket that forced overtime, but that was only one of numerous spectacular plays that night.
“That was the most high-level game I’ve ever been a part of, as a player or a coach,” said Bennett, whose record at Virginia is 254-89, with seven NCAA tournament appearances and one trip to the NIT.
For the returning Cavaliers, the season is still something of a blur.
“I haven’t had time to sit back and go, wow, we really won a national championship,” Jerome said. “Whenever I watch a video or see a tweet or someone sends me something, it doesn’t feel real. I don’t think it’s ever going to actually feel real. It’s something I dreamed about since I was a little kid, and to actually accomplish it with the group of guys we had, I don’t think it’s ever going to feel real.”
The Cavaliers open the season Nov. 6 at Syracuse, and they’ve been practicing since the start of the fall semester. With Salt, Jerome, Hunter and Guy gone, it’s “a whole new-look team,” Bennett said, but on this night his focus, and his team’s, was on 2018-19, not 2019-20.
“My message is simple: Let’s enjoy tonight and celebrate a national championship,” Bennett said before the event. “It’s special. Maybe it’s once in a lifetime. Maybe if you’re lucky enough it happens a few more times, but that’s all I’m focused on.”
As he later told the crowd at JPJ: “When I think of this team, I think of a proverb: A desire accomplished is sweet to the soul. And this is about as sweet as it gets.”