“What if I told you” to reach the highest of highs you first had to reach the lowest of lows…Well on April 9, 2019, Virginia basketball did just that.
On Mar. 16, 2018, No. 16 seed UMBC did the unthinkable: The Golden Retrievers destroyed thousands of basketball fans brackets when they captured a 20-point victory (74-54) over the No. 1 seed, Virginia, in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
The unprecedented defeat devastated head coach Tony Bennett’s squad and marked Virginia men’s hoops as an overrated program in college basketball history. However, the 2019 Virginia team shocked the nation and clinched the ultimate victory: The University’s first basketball National Championship.
Coming off a 16-2 ACC record, only losing twice to conference rival and tournament favorite, Duke, the Cavaliers entered the tournament as the ACC regular season champions and the No. 1 seed in the South region.
In for a wild ride and a few last-second victories, the 2019 Wahoos truly defined the tournament’s tagline of “March Madness” and this is how it happened.
The First Close Call
In the first round of tournament play against the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs, many Virginia fans found themselves in the same position they had so desperately wished to have forgotten.
Down by six at halftime, Cavalier fans sat at the edge of their seats praying the unthinkable would not repeat itself. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas captured the tension that invaded the thoughts of all Virginia fans.
However, Virginia fan’s prayers were quickly answered. After a series of uncharacteristic turnovers in the first half, the Wahoos stayed calm and came out strong with a 25-5 run after the break.
Redshirt sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter, an essential piece of the Cavaliers squad who had missed last year’s upset after breaking his wrist, led the ‘Hoos with 23 points.
The redshirt junior, Mamadi Diakite added 17 points on eight of the 10 shooting and nine rebounds. These two powerhouses helped the Cavaliers capture a 71-56 victory and advance to the next round to take on Oklahoma.
Making it Look Easy
In the second-round matchup against No. 9 seed Oklahoma, Tony Bennett switched up his starting lineup, having Diakite start instead of redshirt senior Jack Salt.
The mental toughness Diakite brought to the second half against the Bulldogs convinced Bennett to put him in the starting lineup. Bennett said, “to be able to handle adversity or a hard start, that’s a separator for a lot of players.
He’s definitely coming in the right direction, and he was terrific.” Scoring 14 points and returning nine rebounds, Diakite led the Cavaliers to an easy 63-51 win over the Sooners. After breezing over Oklahoma, the Cavaliers headed to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years.
In Louisville Kentucky, Virginia was matched up against No. 12 seed Oregon. Maintaining a comfortable lead (30-22) at the half, the Ducks showed up after the break, making the game a bit closer than the Cavs wanted.
“At times we struggled, but we made enough offensive plays and certainly rallied defensively,” said Bennett in a post-game interview.
However, junior guard Ty Jerome made a game-changing play hitting a memorable three-pointer with three and a half minutes to go.
From then on, the Cavaliers infamous defense took control of the game and shut down the Ducks offense, finishing the game with a 53-49 victory.
Playing Until the Clock Runs out
Heading into the Elite Eight, the Cavaliers took on No. 3 Purdue and the Boilermakers shooting machine Carsen Edwards. In spite of the magnificent performance from Edwards, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the South region, the Cavaliers clinched a nail-biting win (80-75) in overtime.
Diakite, who scored the game-tying jumper off an assist from freshman guard Kihei Clark, once again came through for the Cavaliers and secured their chance at redemption in overtime. Once the shot was made, there was no stopping Virginia.
In OT, junior guard Kyle Guy and Clark each made two critical free throws and Hunter added four points, making it clear Virginia was going to advance on.
The win secured the Cavaliers trip to the final four for the first time since 1984. As the team celebrated in a rather Purdue-dominated arena in Louisville, the fans back in Charlottesville mobbed the infamous corner.
The Road Ends Here
After a well-deserved week of rest, the Cavaliers headed to Minneapolis for the chance at the National Title, something the ‘Hoos couldn’t have dreamed of after the devastating loss in the first round in 2018.
Although Virginia had pretty much taken the lead for the majority of the semifinal game against fifth-seeded Auburn, the Tigers were not going down without a fight.
Tensions were high in the final five minutes of the game in the Viking’s U.S. Bank Stadium when the Tigers effortlessly erased a 10-point deficit and grabbed a four-point lead over the ‘Hoos. With the Tigers leading 61-60 with 7.6 seconds left, Virginia fans were convinced their time dancing had come to an end.
However, if there’s anything Bennett’s squad had proven thus far, it’s that it’s not over until the clock runs out. In comes Virginia’s Kyle Guy, the man of the tournament. The Wahoo guard threw up and made an off-balance three-pointer, effectively ending the drought Virginia had withstood in the last five minutes of the game.
Following the vital shot, Virginia did what any desperate team in the final seconds of the game would do, they fouled. Clark sent Auburn’s Jared Harper to the line.
The junior guard made one of two free throws maintaining Auburn’s lead (62-60). Down by two, with 0:07 seconds left, Virginia was truly living on a prayer.
A rather contested last moment of the game, the play on the court was hectic. It’s been debated that a few missed calls may have altered the turnout of the game, but no whistles were blown.
Guy got his hands on the ball and fired a three in a Hail Mary attempt. With 0:02 on the clock, the ball bounced off the rim and the announcers claimed the Tigers had won. Assuming they had won the game, Auburn fans ran to the streets to celebrate the history they thought they’d made.
However, the referees unsealed the deal and sent Auburn smiles into tears. In an attempt to block the shot, the referees reviewed the play and ruled that Auburn’s junior guard Samir Doughty fouled Guy on the play, sending the 83.3 free throw percentage point guard to the line for three shots at redemption.
Guy swished the first two free throws to tie up the game (62-62), and Auburn took a time out. After an anxious break, the teams returned to the court and all eyes were glued on Guy.
Making the final free throw with 0:01 second remaining, Guy’s shot gave the ‘Hoos a one-point lead and sent the Virginia Cavaliers to the national championship for the first time in school history. In a post-game interview, Guy rejoiced in the glory, “I just told myself that we dream of these moments. To be able to make one happen was special.”
Victory at Last
As the infamous Michael Jordan once said, “the key to success is failure,” and 388 days after making NCAA Tournament history in a crushing defeat to a No. 16 seed, the Cavaliers became champions. The moment the Cavaliers had worked all year for had finally arrived.
In the final game between Virginia and Texas Tech, the two teams battled to make history on behalf of their respective institutions. Virginia fans and alumni, including UVa basketball legends Ralph Sampson, Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, and Justin Anderson filled the Virginia side of the arena, while the Texas Tech Raiders dominated the opposing seats.
Experiencing déjà vu from the previous game, Virginia fans watched a 10-point lead turn into a three-point deficit. Once again, the game came down to the wire and Virginia’s NBA-prospect Hunter put his cape on and came to the rescue. With 12 seconds on the clock, Hunter made the game-tying three-pointer which sent the game into overtime.
Hunter solidified the win (85-77) by adding another three in the extra period. Hunter, who was dearly missed in the last tournament, played a key role in helping Virginia clinch the National Championship title on Monday night. As the orange and blue confetti fell from the ceiling, the Cavaliers basked in the glory that replaced the shame that came in 2018:
Shedding the baggage that accompanied the name “Virginia Basketball” for the past year, the Wahoos redeemed Bennett’s program and brought days of celebration to Charlottesville.
On Tuesday, the Charlottesville community headed over to John Paul Jones Arena, home of the Virginia Cavaliers to welcome back the team, the staff, the coach, and of course, the National Championship trophy. While students, teachers, and university staff alike continue to high-five and congratulate players on grounds, the official celebration will continue Saturday at Scott Stadium.