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Bennett looks back, ahead as UVA celebrates national title

Tony BennettTony Bennett is usually watching basketball games for different reasons than you and I watch basketball games.

We’re rooting for somebody. He’s scouting, if it’s an opponent, or self-scouting, if he’s watching his UVA team.

Bennett, fresh off his first national championship, won back in April, took it on him to watch some of his team’s games in the NCAA Tournament run.

“In the moment, you’re watching, and you’re tense and thinking about things. And then when you watch it as a spectator on TV, I was like, Oh, this is close, what’s going to happen, did we win? It was a different feeling. It really was,” Bennett said.

One of the games stuck out in his mind above the others.

“I’ve been part of so many great games as a player, as a coach and assistant coach, at all levels. And I can name a bunch, and it’s not to shortchange any of them. I remember the Michigan State-Virginia Sweet Sixteen, what a heavyweight fight, that was a national championship-caliber game. And there’s a lot of those games. But that Purdue game, at Purdue, I mean at Louisville. Where was that game? It was Louisville. OK. That game, with all that was at stake, answers back and forth. That was the highest-level game I’ve been a part of. The drama at the end, but I’m talking the whole thing.”

This from a coach whose team improbably won the national title a year after losing as a one seed to a 16, then trailing by 14 in the first half as a one against a 16, and then those last three games – Purdue in the South Region final, Auburn in the Final Four, Texas Tech in the national title game.

Two of those wins came in OT, the other on three free throws with six-tenths of a second left.

Bennett was being asked to relive it all Friday night as he prepared for a ceremony to raise the banner marking the Virginia program’s first national title.

One thing that has stuck with Bennett since the events of April is just how many people were touched by the story of redemption from the loss to UMBC in 2018 to win it all a year later.

“So many people came up and said, I watched that tournament with my great-grandson, my grandson, my son, daughters. Just, how many people it brought together. The message of resiliency, just bouncing back, fighting through it, being formed by that blow that tried to cut you down. I think a lot of people remember that,” Bennett said.

With the start of practice for 2019-2020 weeks away, Bennett has his eyes on a different prize, and a different set of challenges.

The title team lost its top three players – De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy – to the NBA, as well as losing starting center Jack Salt to pro ball in Europe.

“It will be a unique year. Losing that many guys, there’s a new challenge, and there’s excitement with that,” Bennett said.

A reporter had asked the coach if he felt he might have issues in the afterglow of winning a national title in maintaining the competitive hunger necessary to continue to strive to do more.

“Competition brings a hunger in everyone. The (UMBC) loss brought a unique hunger last year, the way we lost, and this year brings a different, and unique, hunger,” Bennett said. “You have to look at your team, and it’s a whole new-look team, with a few guys returning, and there are some challenges there. But, I’ll enjoy it. That’s one of our pillars, passion. If you’re lacking passion, or you’re lukewarm, it’s going to be a hard deal.”

Story by Chris Graham