Redeemed: UVA Basketball snatches national-title victory from jaws of UMBC defeat

uva basketball national champsYou’re not supposed to want to admit that the UMBC game was anything more than one loss, that anybody associated with UVA Basketball wanted to have anything to do with those four letters.

You knew you were lying when Gardner-Webb went up 14 in the first half three weeks ago.

Cavalier fans, known for traveling in numbers, taking over Madison Square Garden in the 2014 Sweet Sixteen, for instance, when UConn, the eventual national champ that year, was an hour away, and couldn’t get its fans in the building – well, that, and taking over ACC Tournaments, and outdrawing home teams in their own gyms, that was all before the bad thing that happened.

You knew something bad could happen again, and, fess up, you expected it.

So, OK, Virginia came back and beat Gardner-Webb. And then not so much as beat Oklahoma, as just did what Virginia teams do to opponents – beat them down.

The Oregon game was an ugly win. Purdue, damn, Carsen Edwards, he was hitting everything he threw toward the rim.

And then, magic.

Edwards had 42, banked a late three to put Purdue on top, but Kihei Clark chased down a missed Ty Jerome free throw, found Mamadi Diakite in the lane, Diakite drained the short jumper at the buzzer, and you were starting to feel it.

Seemed like some destiny was at play here, didn’t it?

Final Four: after a back-and-forth second half, UVA went up 10 with 5:22 to go, and then, couldn’t get anything to go right.

Jerome picked up about the dumbest fourth foul you could imagine a kid as smart as he is can commit, and Auburn took advantage.

A 14-0 Tigers run had them up 61-57 in the closing seconds.

Kyle Guy hit a three with seven seconds left to breathe some life back into the game, and then Jared Harper missed the back end at the line, leaving the door open.

Auburn, with fouls to give, fouled, fouled, fouled, leaving UVA 1.5 seconds to run a final play.

Inbounds to Guy. Foul.

The pundits tried to call it controversial, but Samir Doughty fouled the crap out of Guy.

Three shots to win the game.

The most important: the first one. Make it, and you need one more to tie.

Splash.

OK, so, now, the second one is the most important one. Make it, and the worst you do is go to OT.

Splash.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl calls timeout to try to ice Guy.

Doesn’t work. With six-tenths of a second on the clock, Guy made three free throws to send Virginia to its first national-title game.

For perspective: UVA had been a #1 tournament seed seven times and never been to a title game, a record in futility at the top end of college basketball.

Destiny, rearing its head again.

Gets us to Monday night. Just those words, Monday night, as in, UVA Basketball is playing on Monday night, in April, seems surreal.

Slow starters the entire tournament, UVA gets out to an early 10-point lead, but Texas Tech, also in its first national-title game, rallied to take the lead, before the ‘Hoos went to the locker room up 32-29.

It would get back to double digits again in the second half, and again, Texas Tech came back, this time with a vengeance.

A 17-6 Red Raiders run over a 5:22 stretch of the second half put Texas Tech on top by three into the closing seconds.

Which gets us to: De’Andre Hunter.

Hunter had averaged 11.3 points in Virginia’s most recent four, which, fine, 11.3 points a game, what’s wrong with that, but what was wrong with it was, Hunter seemed to be shrinking on the game’s biggest stage, only putting up 30 shots over the course of those four, hardly befitting a player of his talents, to be that deferential.

Hunter came out aggressive from the get-go, but be careful what you wish for. Hunter missed his first seven shots from the floor, and he was 1-of-8 from the floor for five points (making 3-of-4 at the line) at the break.

A pair of free throws on Virginia’s first offensive possession of the second half seemed to get him going. A jumper, a three, another three, a stickback, a short jumper with 2:21 to go to put Virginia back on top.

Hunter missed one shot in the second half. If he’d missed his last shot, the season falls short.

Down three inside of 20 seconds to go, Jerome drove the left side of the lane, drawing a defender, leaving Hunter open at the three-point line in the right corner.

Splash. Fourteen seconds left, tie game.

Virginia would hold on Texas Tech’s last offensive possession to send the game to overtime.

It was a nip-and-tuck battle most of the way, but, again, Hunter. His three from the right corner with 2:09 to go put UVA on top to stay, at 75-73.

Hunter finished with 27, on 8-of-16 shooting.

Guy had 24, on 8-of-15 shooting, spread out more evenly.

Jerome: 16 points, eight assists, one turnover, in 42 minutes.

The Big Three scored 67 of Virginia’s 85 points, but they didn’t win the game on their own.

Braxton Key, the Alabama transfer, who started six games before Kihei Clark was elevated to the starting lineup, gave UVA 28 minutes off the bench, scoring six points, pulling down 10 rebounds, and blocking a Jarrett Culver shot at the end of regulation that kept things moving in the right direction.

Clark, the aforementioned, had modest numbers: three points, four assists, two turnovers in 33 minutes, but Clark did what Clark does: getting into opponents’ shirts.

But it wasn’t defense that won this one for Virginia. As with the Purdue game, the title-game win was one in which Virginia had to outscore its opponent, if that makes sense to say it that way.

Virginia teams just don’t give up 77 points, and they sure don’t win games if they do give up 77.

This is where we arc back to UMBC, last March.

Tony Bennett rarely deviated from his mover-blocker motion offense, but UMBC demonstrated that you can take away Virginia’s offense by jumping passing lanes and getting away with whatever it could in grabbing and clutching Guy and Jerome trying to run off screens.

The offense needed more variety, and Bennett had a lunch with Jerome early in the offseason that will forever be in Virginia Athletics lore, discussing what the team could do to open things up a bit.

Continuity ball screen and middle third sets were added to the mix, and early on, in a 76-71 win at Maryland in November, it was apparent that Virginia was now equipped to win a game in which it was facing an opponent that couldn’t seem to miss.

Now, to be clear, the old, boring way of winning, by playing tight defense, was still around.

But, what is different about this Virginia team is its ability to score.

The ‘Hoos finished the season ranked second in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, scoring 1.234 points per possession.

On a night when another opponent had a stretch in which it couldn’t seem to miss – Texas Tech shot 15-of-28 from the floor in the second half – Virginia had an answer on its end of the floor.

UVA kept pace by shooting 13-of-25 from the floor in the second half, and then, finally, put together its best five minutes of the NCAA Tournament, in the overtime, holding Texas Tech to 4-of-11 shooting in the extra period, and getting to the line consistently on its end, and sinking all 12 of his tosses from the charity stripe.

The 85 points surrendered by Texas Tech was the highest point total for an opponent all year.

The Red Raiders had been giving up 57.8 points per game in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, and had only allowed 70 or more five times in 37 games coming into Monday night.

How much was that X’s and O’s from Bennett and his staff?

Probably a lot. He’s a Hall of Fame coach now.

Bennett laid the foundation for what I’m calling this season of redemption in the offseason, meeting with Jerome to get things moving in the right direction in terms of opening up the offense.

How much of the story arc ending last night with Virginia winning its first-ever national championship in basketball is because of, and, yes, you still don’t want to admit it, I get it.

But, it’s there.

I wrote in the wee hours after that defeat that Virginia could go one of two ways post-UMBC: let it be a burden, or turn it into a strength.

All offseason long, the players, still feeling the sting of that defeat, hoisted more jumpers, ran more sprints, lifted more weights, and when they got tired, they’d think of UMBC, and work even harder.

Into the season, every time Virginia went on the road, they faced fan bases wearing UMBC sweatshirts, hats, jerseys, taunting.

They were working harder. They were building resolve.

It all came to a test earlier than expected, with the 16 seed Gardner-Webb, but under the media microscope that afternoon, Virginia passed with flying colors.

The first Monday in April game was the final, and appropriately, ultimate, test. Facing a team that is a mirror image, hitting big shot after big shot in the second half, the ‘Hoos didn’t blink.

They were tougher than their opponents because of what they’d been through over the past year.

Monday night doesn’t happen if UMBC doesn’t happen.

Accept it. Revel in it.

You get to be in JPJ in seven months when a banner goes up, and you can cry that night like you did last night.

It’s Tuesday morning; our joy has cometh.

Wahoowa.

Story by Chris Graham



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