Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Virginia's redemption story becomes one for the ages

By Pat Forde
April 9, 2019
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MINNEAPOLIS — Ty Jerome had just descended the ladder after cutting his souvenir strand of national championship net. He was asked a few questions by a reporter, gave a few answers. Then, when he was about to walk off and sit down and watch himself play a starring role in "One Shining Moment," he tapped me on the arm.
"You're going to have to write a different article now," the Virginia guard said with a smile.
Yes. Yes, I am.
Here's an article on the greatness of Virginia. Here's an article on one of the most remarkable one-year journeys a program has ever made. Here's an article on a group that wouldn't be denied, beating Texas Tech in a game that far exceeded its aesthetic premise, 85-77 in overtime Monday night.
From worst (loss) to first, the Virginia redemption story is one for the ages. From laughingstock to last team standing is the stuff of legend. From the historic nadir of March Madness to its zenith — in the most dramatic manner imaginable — is a profound example of what makes sports so irresistible.
When the Cavaliers gagged against No. 16 seed UMBC last year as the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, I broke out the bayonet and ran it through Tony Bennett's team. In a regrettable flourish of overstatement, I ended the column with this declaration: "A team cannot win it all this way. It cannot come close."
Welp. So much for that opinion.
I found out Sunday afternoon how much that column dug under Jerome's skin. The starting players do individual breakout interview sessions on the day before the championship game, and I sat in on Jerome's session for a while. Right when I was leaving, he figured out who I was and made mention to the remaining reporters of reading my rip job the day after the UMBC loss while sitting in a doctor's office, waiting for an appointment to check an injured toe.
I heard about Jerome's anecdote 30 minutes later, then happened to see him as he was walking to the U.S. Bank Stadium exit. I stuck out a hand and introduced myself, saying, "I heard you were looking for me." He shook my hand and laughed.
I told him I regretted some of the tone of the column. Jerome shrugged and said, "It's nothing personal." And he's right about that — none of it was personal.
Sometimes teams play poorly. Sometimes columnists write poorly.
Fortunately, both Virginia and I got another shot at this thing. And, man, did they deliver some material. I thank the 'Hoos for that.
The details of this heart-pounding run are ridiculous. Try to wrap your head around this: Virginia trailed within the final 15 seconds of regulation in its final three games of this tourney. And still won them all.
The Cavaliers were all but dead until a buzzer-beating basket to end regulation against Purdue in the regional final, then won in overtime. They were all but dead Saturday night in the national semifinal against Auburn, until a controversial foul call sent Kyle Guy to the foul line to win it in the final second. And Monday night, they trailed Tech by three when Jerome came flashing upcourt and drove into the lane, then fired a pass to De’Andre Hunter in the corner for a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left to force OT once again.
As was the case against Purdue and Auburn, the opponent made a small but crucial error that Virginia exploited for big returns. A missed Ryan Cline free throw came back to bite the Boilermakers. A missed Jared Harper free throw did the same to the Tigers. And Monday night, the Red Raiders' defensive tenets became a problem when they collapsed on Jerome's drive.
At that point, letting Jerome score a layup and staying out on all 3-point shooters would have been the wiser play — Texas Tech would have been inbounding with the lead and Virginia would have been forced to foul. But an entire season of muscle memory and instinctive response can be hard to undo in the heat of the moment, and so Tech star Jarrett Culver dropped in to contest Jerome and left Hunter wide open for the tying shot.
Thus the final three games of this Virginia season ended regulation with a combined score of Cavaliers 201, opponents 200. They walked the precipice like few champions ever in the 80-year history of this event.
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Virginia becomes the sixth NCAA tourney champion to endure two overtime games on the way to winning it all. (The others: North Carolina 1957, Texas Western '66, UCLA '75, Louisville '80 and Arizona '97). When you throw in the Auburn escape — and an oh-god-not-again, 14-point deficit in the opening NCAA game against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb — this is arguably the most near-death experiences survived by a champion since North Carolina State '83.
Yet for all the escapes, there also were the blown leads, too. As if Virginia had to make this journey as difficult as humanly possible. The 'Hoos were up six with 5:52 to play against Purdue, then needed the Mamadi Diakite jumper at the buzzer to extend the game. They were up 10 with 5:24 left against Auburn, then went scoreless for five minutes. They were up eight with 6:35 left Monday night — and up four with 1:44 to play — before giving away those advantages.
Still, they persevered.
"We were built to last, and built to outlast," Guy said. "We were built to win in overtime."
Said Jerome: "We just play until that buzzer sounds."
When the buzzer sounded Monday, Hunter hurled the ball skyward. Guy sprinted nearly the full length of the court before being hug-tackled by a teammate, then tore back to midcourt to jump on Hunter. Meanwhile, the Texas Tech players filed off in various stages of grief — fifth-year senior Brandone Francis bent over and heaved sobs, stomping his right foot as he bawled.
Bennett, eternally classy in victory and defeat, sought out Culver to console him. Shortly thereafter, he came face-to-face with the most reluctant man to set foot in the stadium — his father, Dick.
The old coach, who took Wisconsin to the 2000 Final Four and largely pioneered the plodding playing style that his son now teaches, couldn't bring himself to come Saturday night. He's a stress case, and sitting in the stands watching Tony's teams play is a form of torture he largely avoids.
Dick forced himself to go to the South region final against Purdue, to see Tony's Final Four breakthrough. And he forced himself to go Monday night.
"I had to be here," Dick Bennett said. Not that it was easy.
"I can't let the game go, and I tend to look on the negative," he said. "I was always on edge, worrying about what was coming next."
What Dick Bennett has never had to worry about is how his son would handle the extreme highs and lows of his profession. The UMBC loss was devastating for many, but not so much for the head coach who took the most blame. He's just not wired to let the outcome of a game crack his worldview.
Now, that doesn't mean regrouping post-UMBC — Virginia's fifth straight ugly ouster from the NCAA tourney — was a joy ride. When your players are getting death threats and have to be escorted by law enforcement to their hotel rooms, that's a lot to process. Bennett has been open about how that loss led him to deepen his religious faith.
So, too, did the game fundamentally change his players. Guy, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, publicly posted a couple of long and candid missives after the UMBC game, disclosing his struggles with anxiety in one of them.
Eventually, and somewhat incredibly, Virginia began referring to the UMBC debacle as a gift. The individual and collective growth from it was profound.
"I knew what we were capable of," Jerome said. "I watched us take our work ethic to a new level."
Monday night, the fruits of that labor were all on display. There was Guy, playing all 45 minutes and draining so many big shots on his way to 24 points. There was Hunter, exploding out of an extended offensive funk during this tourney for a career-high 27. And there was Jerome, racking up 16 points, six rebounds and eight assists while navigating his way through what was the No. 1 defense in America, according to Ken Pomeroy.
That junior nucleus had been the fall guys a year ago. On Monday night, they were the heroes.
"It don't feel real, bro," Guy said to Jerome on the dais in the postgame interview.
"It still don't feel real," Jerome responded. "Still doesn't feel real. Come on, bro. Talk properly."
There were laughs all around. Only one team gets to end this enthralling, three-week competition with laughter, and at long last it was Virginia.
That's a different article. And a fun one to write.

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