When we begin talking about the greatest tales in college basketball history from now on, the story of this Virginia team must be at the top of the list.
On Monday night, the Cavaliers finished a journey in which they went from suffering the ultimate embarrassment — becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2018 — to climbing to the top of the college basketball mountain and etching their name in sports lore.
The story of the program’s first national title is certainly a long one that began with tears as the players walked off the court at the Spectrum Center last March after falling to UMBC, and stretched through a 35-3 2019 season that ended on Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.
There were certainly roadblocks along the way, among them two regular-season losses to Duke and a defeat in the ACC Tournament semifinals to Florida State.
Yet Tony Bennett’s team managed to regroup time and time again. Using the same core that landed on the wrong side of history in 2018, Virginia battled through an NCAA Tournament that was accompanied with five nail-biting finishes.
I will remember where I was for each one of those games.
I was sitting in a car on the way to Columbus, Ohio, to cover UNC’s NCAA Tournament games against Iona and Washington when my fellow editor, Ryan Wilcox, announced that Virginia was down by 12 points to Gardner-Webb in the first round.
A smile crossed my face and I began to laugh at the ridiculousness of the notion that Virginia could somehow lose in the first round, again. I grabbed my phone, both eager to watch the game unfold and grateful to find something to occupy my mind during our endless drive.
Soon, Virginia had taken the lead, but the tone had been set. Nothing was going to come easy for the Cavaliers in their quest for redemption. But no matter what, this team found a way to win.
During Virginia’s Sweet 16 game, I was watching at home. I couldn’t believe it when Oregon took a three-point lead with over five minutes left. I immediately began questioning my own stupidity for putting the Cavaliers in my Final Four and I opened up our Daily Tar Heel bracket group on my phone to see how much Virginia losing would hurt my chances against the other participants.
Somehow, Virginia held on and punched a ticket to the Elite Eight. It was there where the play of the tournament occurred, one that I liken to my generation’s Christian Laettner shot against Kentucky (his also occurred in the Elite Eight).
Virginia sat in the driver’s seat for most of the second half, despite the kind of performance from Purdue’s Carsen Edwards that we haven’t seen in March since some guy for Davidson named Curry carried his team to the Elite Eight in 2008.
Except the Cavaliers didn’t score for more than three minutes and watched a one-point lead with 3:09 left evaporate as the Boilermakers went on a 4-0 run in the closing minutes.
But somehow, a Ty Jerome free throw miss with five seconds left and Virginia down by two turned into a Mamadi Diakite jumper at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. There I was in my apartment, running around the room in sheer disbelief. Surely I had just witnessed history. The result of the game was a foregone conclusion. In a cruel twist of fate, Purdue went from Final Four bound to one of four teams that lost in the Elite Eight.
I watched the Final Four game at a friend’s apartment as Virginia somehow turned defeat into victory yet again with three free throws from Kyle Guy with one second left against Auburn.
Before Guy was inexplicably fouled on a 3-pointer, I was sure Virginia was screwed. The Cavaliers had somehow blown a double-digit lead with five minutes left. Yet Auburn's Jared Harper, an 82.8 percent free throw shooter, somehow only made one of two free throws and a Jerome double dribble was not called on the next play.
I apologize in advance for the cliche I am about to use, but the win over Auburn made me realize Virginia was a team of destiny. I had watched the Cavaliers evade defeat three games in a row, in three different ways.
So as I again sat on my couch Monday night and watched one of the best National Championship games ever, the outcome never seemed in doubt. Even after Texas Tech went on a late run to take a three-point lead with 22 seconds left, I had just one thought.
How is Virginia going to win it this time?
My question was quickly answered. Jerome drove down the lane and kicked out to De’Andre Hunter for a wide open three. Swish.
Texas Tech was unable to score, and the teams graced us with five more minutes of basketball, just the eighth National Championship game to go to overtime in 81 years.
I feel like I can safely say I wasn’t the only one watching on TV or sitting in the stadium who knew at that point the game was over. Virginia was about to make history.
I didn’t turn away from my TV screen at all during overtime. I wanted to soak up every second as history was being made in front of my eyes.
Virginia will always be the answer to the trivia question of the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed.
But the Cavaliers will also be remembered for something more, for turning the ultimate embarrassment into the sweetest redemption and reaching the peak of the college basketball world.
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