The Cardiac Cavs!
After so many disappointments, Virginia’s Championship Run was one for the ages
Ever since North Carolina State pulled off the impossible season in 1983 after overcoming so many obstacles, every college basketball championship run is sometimes compared to head coach Jim Valvano’s classic “Survive and Advance” theme for drama or implausability.
To that end maybe what happened just a few weeks ago during Virginia’s first NCAA Championship in Mens’ basketball just may fall under that category. Not that head coach Tony Bennett’s experienced team wasn’t capable, but as so many experts and fans will tell you being good isn’t always good enough to get there. Sometimes it takes a little luck and series of events to allow the tumblers to drop in just the right order.
But first let’s take a look at the importance of what just happened as compared to what had happened about a year ago during the NCAA Tournament when this same Virginia team, which was the No. 1 seed going in became the first to make history (for the wrong reason) by losing to UMBC 74-54 in the first round thus setting the stage for so many tasteless jokes about the Cavaliers and their inability to either get there or win the big one. That loss was just one of many disappointments in Cavalier basketball playoff history. The most recent to Syracuse in the Elite Eight in 2016 when they blew a 15-point lead late with 9:32 left, 68-62. Going back to the Ralph Sampson days in the early 80’s when Virginia was a top flight contender, yet failed to deliver.
The Syracuse loss brought about a frustrating rant on the radio show “The Midday Rush” where alumni Lachlen McClain called his former college team “A Loser in the two most important sports (meaning Football and Mens’ Basketball)!”
Despite the success that Bennett had achieved during his stay at Virginia, that Lead Balloon of frustration hung over the team’s head as some citied his style of play as one of the reasons and the upset to the Retrievers a season later didn’t help their case.
But look at them now as Bennett stood at the Championship Podium on Monday night April 8th as his Cavaliers were finally National champions.
Still, in order to get there was no picnic as they would have to overcome still several more obstacles not to mention get a lifetime worth of lucky breaks to boot.
It all started with a first round win over Gardner-Webb in which they had to overcome an early deficit which brought back bad memories of last season as No.1 faced No.16 again. A convincing win over Oklahoma helped state their case, but the following week in Louisville for the South Regional, Oregon played the Cavaliers game in a slow and deliberate mode and it wasn’t until late in the second half that Virginia finally pulled away, 53-49.
That’s when things got really interesting. An Elite Eight match against a hot Purdue team turned into a track race which nearly spelled Doom for the Cavaliers. Trailing by three with 00:05 remaining, it took a lucky bounce, a lucky pass and a lucky shot to extend the season for Bennett’s team. This is where everyone needs a Mamadi Diakite. The forward, who played 42 minutes (including the overtime) was the benifactor of a perfect one handed pass from guard Kihei Clark after Guy Jerome missed a free throw, but got a favorable bounce (like back towards midcourt). One has to wonder what would have happened if the ball hadn’t took such a sharp long rebound after the miss, would a Boilermaker have been able to retrieve it and end the game? Instead, Diakite’s shot at the buzzer tied things up and sent the game to an extra period as Virginia won, 80-75. The win overshadowed Carsen Edwards 42-point effort for Purdue as the Cavaliers reached the Final Four and another hot team and another lucky moment for Virginia.
Despite missing their best scorer, Auburn outshot and outscored Virginia after nearly 39 minutes and 58-seconds of the game, but a foul on Kyle Guy on the three point attempt as time was running out allowed the guard to first tie and then put his team ahead as the Cavaliers pulled another rabbit out of the hat with a 63-62 win that sent them to the Championship game on Monday against another hot team in Texas Tech.
Whether on not the foul should have been called in that situation was inconsequential as Guy still had to deliver in that pressure packed moment and anyone who truly believes that making three free throws in a row under pressure in a win-or-go-home game is a piece of cake should try doing the same themselves.
Auburn fans who always look back at a double dribble call that occurred about a minute before the fateful foul on Guy as a cruel turn of events. Still, the Tigers fought the good fight as Virginia moved on to the Championship game the following night against another surprise team.
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Against Texas Tech, the Cavaliers played a close game, finally took control with a ten point lead late, but then thanks to a spirited effort by the Red Raiders found themselves trailing by three points with just seconds left in the 2018-2019 NCAA College Basketball season. That’s when Bennett’s team got their last and final break of the Tournament as De’Andre Hunter drained a three with 12.9-seconds remaining in regulation forcing the first overtime period in a Championship game since 2008 (When Kansas beat Memphis ).
With a fresh five minutes remaining, the Red Raiders had lost their momentum as Virginia went on a 11-0 run to finish off a 85-77 win and the team’s first Championship in the sport.
While thousands of fans watched Bennett and his team cut down their first Championship net on television, many experts looked back at the Cavaliers playoff run and pointed to the breaks that allowed them to stay close or either eventually win it. True, they did have the ball bounce the right way for them, but they still had to take advantage of their chances.
For instance, Dikite had to hit that last second shot against Purdue, Guy had to hit all three free throws and Hunter had to hit a pressure three to tie things up in the regulation. Both Jerome and Guy had great tournament runs and Bennett can now forget all the playoff disappointments in the past (or at least for a while).
Still, the one thing that may be best remembered and was by several of the Virginia players as a driving force during the last several weeks was not any one win, but in reality a loss. The UMBC loss last season may have started it all and the horrible feeling every player had to feel in the locker room afterwards. So from a 16-seed loss to a National Championship in twelve months.