By Steve Serby
April 9, 2019
MINNEAPOLIS — The clutch kid who fought to free himself from the clutches of anxiety. The savvy kid from New Rochelle. The lottery pick from Philadelphia who sat helplessly with a broken wrist on the bench on the worst night of his teammates’ basketball lives, having the best night of his. The cat-quick freshman guard from California. The blond big man from Guinea. The 6-foot-8 transfer from Alabama. The coach who promised his players there would be light at the end of a tunnel that had never been darker, one fateful March night a year ago.
A national joke then.
A national champion now.
The first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed. The first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed and win a national championship the next season.
Ralph Sampson never could win a national championship for Virginia. These guys became the first who did.
There were no tears on this night, only cheers and joy inside U.S. Bank Stadium after the Cavaliers had beaten Texas Tech 85-77 in an overtime spine-tingler.
Go ahead, Kyle Guy, and change that Twitter avatar of you bent over in anguish and disbelief moments after UMBC made history against you, before the death threats followed you and your teammates. You don’t need to be reminded of your personal hell anymore. None of you do.
You will not be remembered as chumps. You will be remembered as champs.
And so one by one, these Virginia players ridiculed and piled on by too many who for reasons known only to them equate sports to life and death, one by one they climbed the ladder, this ladder to success, to cut down the nets.
It was 12:09 a.m. when Guy, as anxiety-free as a kid can be, waved the strand over his head on the top step and wore a smile that could have stretched back to Charlottesville.
“I’m speechless,” Guy said. “I’m humbled and grateful to be in this position. I was a small part of this success, and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
Moments earlier, he had made the mad dash he had dreamed of making, to the warm, sweet embrace of his parents and fiancée.
“That’s what I wanted to do. When we lost last year, that is the moment that I was waiting for,” Guy said. “To be able to run in the stands, and hug my family. That’s what I wanted to do, and to be able to do that’s amazing.”
Soon he was on the podium with his teammates wearing his blue national championship T-shirt and white hat gazing up at “One Shining Moment”.
Tony Bennett’s father, Dick, a respected former coach who is an emotional wreck watching his son coach, decided he had to be at U.S. Bank Stadium for this one after staying away from the semifinal.
“I thought it was more important to be here in case they lost,” Dick Bennett said on the court. “To not be there at a moment when things don’t go right, that’s I think when parents need to be around. He didn’t need me here, but I guess I felt I needed to.”
There couldn’t have been a happier father in America.
“Words aren’t very accurate when your emotions outrun them, and that’s kinda where I am right now,” he said.
Dick Bennett was proud of his son long before this night.
“Last year was about as tough as it could be, but because he handled it so well, it made it easier on the rest of us,” he said. “Had he been so broken-hearted, it would have been very difficult. … He has a higher view of things.”
Towards the end, as a De’Andre Hunter 3 on a feed from Ty Jerome, that savvy gamer from New Rochelle, gave Virginia a 75-73 lead after Texas Tech had erased a 10-point second-half deficit, and the ball went off Davide Moretti’s fingertips with 1:06 left, and Jerome sank a pair of free throws with 41.5 seconds left and then Guy sank a pair of free throws with 31.2 seconds left, Dick Bennett was coaching along with his son in the stands, imploring his team to get back on defense.
“I probably do that when I’m sleeping,” he said.
He had hugged his wife when it ended.
“I’m just very happy and we’re truly blessed,” she said.
Her champion son organized a family photo on the court with his wife, son, daughter and parents.
This time Virginia didn’t need a last-gasp ‘J’ from Mamadi Diakite to stay alive. This time Virginia didn’t need a controversial last-second foul and three free throws from Guy.
This time the Cavaliers rode a career-high 27 points from Hunter, who could not play against UMBC, 22 of them after intermission.
It was only fitting that he was the one to fling the ball skyward as Monday night’s game ended.
“I was just trying to be aggressive from the start,” Hunter said.
His corner 3 had tied the game toward the end of regulation. I asked him about the remarkable contrast of emotions from a year ago.
“It was a terrible feeling,” he said, “but now I feel like I’m on top of the world.”
Texas Tech threw the kitchen sink at Virginia, a sink filled with hungry, under-recruited players who try to play like Lawrence Taylor in sneakers on defense.
And Virginia laughed, played better defense than the Red Raiders, and shot the ball (11-for-24 from downtown) as if they were born for this moment, this stage.
“U-V-A, U-V-A, U-V-A,” chants washed down on them this time.
This was a death struggle where every single possession mattered.
The mentally toughest team you will ever see had its redemption.
“We can forget about UMBC now,” a smiling former Cavalier named Tiki Barber said on the court. “This is a history remaking team. It’s amazing.”
Virginia had finished writing the last chapter of a miracle comeback story that will serve as inspiration to anyone or any team that has ever been knocked to the ground, and isn’t sure if it has the strength and courage to get back up.