In a shocking reversal of fortune from last year, the Virginia Cavaliers have won the men’s NCAA basketball championship. In perhaps one of the greatest comeback stories ever, the 1-seeded Cavaliers lost to 16-seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County 74-54, in what marked the first time in men’s basketball history that a 16-seed had usurped a 1-seed in the first round. Despite, or perhaps partially because of, this devastating loss, the Cavaliers came back stronger than ever, going 29-3 in the regular season and earning another 1-seed–one that they would fulfill the expectations on this time.
Had one looked past the tournament history of the Cavs under coach Tony Bennett, it would’ve been clear that this team had the profile of a champion. With 12 wins over quadrant 1 teams (programs ranked in the top 50 of the NET, an NCAA-sanctioned metric), including wins over fellow 1-seed North Carolina and 4-seeds Florida State and Wisconsin, and the second best offense coupled with the fifth best defense in the nation according to Kenpom, Virginia seemed like one of the strongest contenders for a title. But the Cavs’ style, which encourages teams to shoot threes and causes them to play at the slowest tempo in the country, was seemingly averse to tournament success. Despite earning three 1-seeds and a 2-seed in the past five years, they had never advanced beyond the Sweet Sixteen. But with this win, Virginia clearly validated their style in an unforgettable way.
Virginia’s own opponent said it best. “The foundation for every championship team isn’t style of play,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said, in an apt but ultimately fatal premonition for Virginia’s victory.
Although critics have said a slow tempo doesn’t lead to success in the postseason, there can be no doubts about how effective it is in the regular season. The Cavaliers ripped off 16 straight victories, including non conference wins over tournament participants Wisconsin and Maryland, before running into the buzzsaw that was the Duke Blue Devils. The Devils, led by a trio of highly touted freshmen–Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish–seemed to be the only team capable of beating Virginia, as they later handed the Cavaliers their second loss on Virginia’s home court. A loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament would be the Cavs’ only other loss on the year.
“Many times coach Bennett has been a 1 seed or a 2 seed and has had so much regular season success,” junior guard Ty Jerome said.
The Cavs were led in the regular and post-season by Jerome, fellow junior Kyle Guy, and sophomore De’Andre Hunter. The trio of stars produced much of Virginia’s offensive output and were each capable of taking over games when called upon. Jerome, the team’s point guard, led the team in assists (5.5) and steals (1.5) per game while also pouring in 13.6 points per game on 40% 3PT shooting. His backcourt mate, Kyle Guy, was one of the most lethal three point shooters in CBB this year, as he shot a scorching 43% from beyond the arc while making 3.2 long balls per game. Guy also lead the team in scoring with 15.4 points per game, mainly propelled by his three point prowess. Last but not least is Hunter, who will most likely be picked in the top-10 of this year’s NBA draft. His 6’7”, 225-lb frame, defensive versatility, and efficient scoring (52% from the field) were a huge part of Virginia’s success this year, and his absence due to injury was no doubt a huge factor in their loss to UMBC last year. Each of the four studs were overlooked during the high school recruiting process, a testament to Bennett’s ability to find so-called diamonds in the rough.
“We’re fortunate to find guys that are better than people think. I think we always try to find guys that are sneaky good,” Bennett said.
Prior to the tournament, however, doubt about the ability of UVA to advance began to creep in among the population, and it seemed to have manifested itself into another disastrous ending for the Cavaliers. They had been given another 1-seed, setting up a matchup with 16-seed Gardner-Webb. And, initially, it seemed that Virginia would not only be the first team to lose to a 16-seed, but was destined to go down again. Gardner-Webb held a six-point lead at half, 36-30, behind strong performances from G Jose Perez (19 points on 70% shooting) and F DJ Laster (10 points, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks). However, Virginia was able to bounce back, outscore the Braves by 21 points in the second half, and end up with a 73-56 victory. The sophomore Hunter was key to the win, as he poured in 23 points on 9-16 shooting, while Jerome stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds, and 3 steals.
“We felt their panic,” Jerome said. As opposed to last year’s historic first-round upset, when it was the Cavaliers upping their pace and throwing up bad shots in response to giving up a big run at the beginning of the second half, it was UVA inducing the panic and keeping calm.
This game marked a turning point for the Cavaliers–despite the obstacles and adversity they would face, they would never panic. They cruised to a second round victory over (9) Oklahoma, but their Sweet 16 opponent proved to be their toughest test of the tournament to that point. (12) Oregon had won 10 games in a row behind a lineup change that made the Ducks one of the longest and most athletic teams in the tournament, with three of their starters standing over 6’9”. The Ducks kept the game close until the last minute, when they started to panic. Down by three, Oregon missed four straight shots, allowing Hunter and freshman Kihei Clarke to close the game out from the line. No better example of Virginia’s sense of destiny can be found than in their comeback victory over Purdue. Down two points with under 6 seconds left in the game, Jerome bounced a free throw off of the front rim–but junior forward Mamadi Diakite tipped the ball into the backcourt. Clarke was able to chase the ball down and rifle a pass to Diakite, who buried a floater over a Purdue defender as the clock expired to send the game to overtime, where Virginia scored the last 6 points to come away with an 80-75 win.
“So happy for my teammates and my coaches and myself to be able to break through in the way that we did this year,” Guy said of the victory that would send them to the Final Four.
In the Final Four, which was the furthest Bennett had ever advanced with Virginia, they would face a red hot (5) Auburn team that had vanquished blue-blood foes Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky on the back of a pressure defense and red-hot three point shooting. And yet again, it looked like the Cavs would lose to a lesser team (at least in terms of seeding). Despite leading by double digits with five minutes remaining in the game, they found themselves down two points with just under two seconds left in the game, UVA was able to stay calm and somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Kyle Guy drew a foul on a three-point attempt, and calmly converted all three free throws to send the Cavaliers to the national championship, where they would face (3) Texas Tech. The Red Raiders had advanced to the championship by playing a similarly stifling style to Virginia, marked by suffocating defense and a slow tempo. It seemed, however, that Tech had the advantage in star power, with sophomore G/F Jarrett Culver a surefire top-5 pick in this year’s NBA draft and guards Dante Moretti and Matt Mooney providing scoring support. Again, the Cavaliers found themselves down late, but again they found a way to survive. Facing a three point deficit and 22 seconds on the clock, Jerome drove past his man and kicked the ball out to Hunter for a wide open three pointer to tie it with 12 seconds on the clock, and UVA’s trademark defense stifled Culver’s attempted jump shot for the win. At this point, the outcome wasn’t in question–and Virginia went on an 11-0 run in OT to win 85-77, giving them their first championship ever.
“It’s a goal we started out with at the beginning of the season. We knew we were going to bounce back from last year. We achieved our dreams,” Hunter said.
This run seemed like destiny to many observers, as Virginia won again and again despite facing increasingly insurmountable odds. It’s not often that a player scores 42 points and still loses (Purdue’s Carsen Edwards), nor is it a common occurrence to win when down by two points with 1.5 seconds on the clock and shooting a fadeaway three pointer. But if destiny said that UVA had to lose to UMBC, it made sure that they’d get theirs–which they did.