Zach Pereles: Time is fleeting. Virginia fans ought to cherish it.
Last year, the anguish on Kyle Guy’s face was what defined Virginia basketball. The tears flowed, the shock and sadness set in, and Virginia was the team that had done the impossible — lost to a No. 16 seed. But the Cavaliers didn’t just lose. They were blown out. Embarrassed. In a long list of March meltdowns for Tony Bennett’s squads, this one was undoubtedly the one that would stick with him and his players for what, at that time, seemed like forever.
There was anguish on Guy’s face again Saturday night, but this time it was the physical pain of a brutal ankle turn late in the first half. The junior guard’s yelp could be heard even on the television broadcast, and it appeared that a March run that he had helped make possible would be coming to the most unceremonious of closings. Guy eventually made his way to the bench but didn’t return for the rest of the half.
When he did come back, he turned into the marksman from deep Virginia fans had grown to love over the past three seasons, and the one they dearly missed through the first three rounds of the tournament. He had made just three three-pointers (on 26 attempts) in the first, second and third rounds combined. Then he made five in a single half and finished with 25 on the night against Purdue. Even with the otherworldly scoring of Carsen Edwards taking center stage, it was Guy who rediscovered the swish of the nylon at the most crucial of times, powering the Virginia Cavaliers to their first Final Four since 1984 with an 80-75 win over Purdue in a thoroughly entertaining Elite Eight showdown.
A year ago, Kyle Guy sobbed as he headed off the court, becoming the unofficial mascot of Virginia basketball in March. A week ago, he missed all 10 of his three-pointers. On Thursday night, he was a paltry 2 of 11 from deep. And on Saturday night, minutes before the most important half of his basketball-playing career, he was crumpled on the Yum! Center court, holding onto a right ankle that had bent at a truly unsightly angle.
But it’s funny what time can do.
Time is always fleeting, and especially so in sports. Most great athletes play into their 30s and then, if things go right, leave fans and the general sports-viewing public with a lifetime of memories. In college sports, it’s even tougher. Great college athletes get four years at most to make an impact — and maybe even leave a legacy. And in this day and age in basketball, most only use a year or two before hopping to the professional ranks.
This Virginia team has made the most of its time. Making a Final Four is no small feat. The list of great players on great Virginia teams who have come and gone through Charlottesville without making it this far is a long one.
Joe Harris, one of the early pioneers of making Virginia basketball into what it is now, didn’t make it here. Malcolm Brogdon, an ACC Player of the Year, didn’t make it here. Sean Singletary, one of the great all-around guards in college basketball history, didn’t make it here. Bryant Stith, the program’s all-time leading scorer, didn’t make it here.
So who is here now?
There’s Guy, who has experienced just about every up and down sports has to offer. The former McDonald’s All-American arrived in Charlottesville as a rail-thin man-bunned outside-shooting gunner. Since, he’s shed tears (and the man bun), smiled as widely as anyone, packed on muscle, developed into a premier defender and bombed away from three about as well as anyone in program history.
There’s Ty Jerome, the fearless point guard running the show, shooting the big shots and making the sparkling passes that made this team’s offense one of the nation’s most efficient. A 6-foot-5 guard out of the New York City suburb of New Rochelle, he exudes confidence, plays fearlessly and finished with 24 points Saturday. As Jerome’s game grew this season, the rumblings of his NBA future grew, too. But that hasn’t ever mattered to him. All that has mattered to him is, well, time.
“Just the opportunity to play with this group again for a whole ‘nother week and practicing with this group and traveling with this group, that’s what means the most,” Jerome said after the Round of 32 win over Oklahoma.
There’s De’Andre Hunter, whose time at Virginia could have ended after his redshirt freshman campaign, when he earned ACC Sixth Man of the Year honors. Instead, he returned to Grounds because, as he said before the ACC Tournament this year, he thought this group could be special. The projected lottery pick struggled for most of the night, but with Virginia down 75-74, Hunter took a drive right to the basket and finished a tough layup to give his team its first lead of overtime. The Boilermakers wouldn’t score another point as the Cavaliers ended the game on a 6-0 run. Hunter’s ability to score in one-on-one situations is what helped set this team apart throughout the year. On Saturday night it’s what set it apart in the most crucial of moments.
There’s Jack Salt, who had spent nearly his entire career as the solid foundation of Virginia’s near-impenetrable defense until recently, when other, more athletic bigs started taking his minutes. The fifth-year senior, known by his coach as “The Giving Tree”, gave Virginia a boost when it needed it most against the physical, lengthy Boilermakers. Coming into this game, he hadn’t scored and had hardly even played in the NCAA Tournament. Want a timely contributor from a guy who has spent more time at Virginia than any of his teammates? On Saturday, he played a career-high 34 minutes, dumped in five points and added eight rebounds, his most in nearly two months.
Then there’s Mamadi Diakite and Kihei Clark, who must be mentioned together because this is about time and making the most of time, and Diakite and Clark did it in tandem.
Want time? How about five point nine seconds for the nation’s slowest team? Down two, Jerome short-armed a free throw, but Diakite tapped the rebound out. Clark raced deep into his own backcourt, took two dribbles, flung a one-handed pass nearly half the length of the court and found Diakite, whose floater flew up over to the arms of 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms, kissed the Cavaliers’ lucky stars in the Louisville sky Saturday night and found nothing but the bottom of the net as the clock expired.
The stories behind these two are just as improbable as the fact that they made the play happen. One’s an undersized freshman guard who’s known for his on-ball defense and who nearly ended up at UC Davis before Bennett took a chance on him late in the recruiting process. The other is a springy forward with bleached blonde hair who only started playing organized basketball in high school when he moved stateside from Guinea.
And what, exactly, happened in those 5.9 seconds of madness?
“I don’t know,” Diakite said. “It happened. I was the person who was designed to take it. And I don’t know. I took it, and it went in. I was happy and ready for the next five minutes. I don’t know how to talk about it. It was just unbelievable.”
Explanations aren’t necessary in the NCAA Tournament.
But perhaps the one measure of time that makes the most sense is 10 years. On March 30, 2009 — 10 years to the day of Saturday’s Elite Eight win — Virginia hired Tony Bennett. He brought a system that would take time: not only time on the shot clock, but time, as in years, to build the Cavaliers into a contender. There were rough patches. Virginia won 31 games in his first two seasons at the helm combined. (For reference, the team has won 33 this year alone.) Bennett’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament ended in a 26-point first round loss, and the program was in the NIT the next year.
Since then, Virginia has gone to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments, the longest such streak in school history. There’s been hope and heartbreak, exuberance and embarrassment, triumph and tears.
Tears especially after last year.
“It created a fire in me that wanted to become a better coach and pursue trying to get these guys to as far as they can — a Final Four, National Championship,” Bennett said ahead of the game. “I’m at peace, but I’m very hungry.”
Time is fleeting. But time also, as it turns out, is what allows great moments to happen. For the key members of this Virginia roster, their time has been tumultuous. Of the eight players who saw the floor Saturday night, six had to deal with carrying the weight of the worst loss in college basketball history through offseason practices, through tough road environments and through their own first-round struggles against a No. 16 seed. Virginia’s 14-point comeback against Gardner-Webb remains the largest in this tournament.
No matter what happens over the next week-plus, Virginia’s season will come to an end. One day soon, the accomplishments of this group of Cavaliers will be just memories — for the players and coaches themselves and for the fans, too.
The players and coaches will be sure to make the most of the next few days. As Jerome said last week, every moment with this group is one he will hold near and dear forever. Fans ought to do the same as well.
After all, time is fleeting. But the opportunities to add to this already-magical season are not.
Column by Zach Pereles
UVA Basketball Fans!
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