PITTSBURGH — With an early tipoff the next day against Alabama, Villanova coach Jay Wright was hoping to get to sleep at a decent hour Friday night at the Omni William Penn. But what was unfolding on the television wouldn’t let him.
As the unfathomable progressively became more real, Wright stayed up in his room watching it: No. 16 seed UMBC 74, No. 1 seed Virginia 54. It was the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history, and it happened to the No. 1 overall seed in this tourney. Wright watched it, then reached for his phone.
“I texted Tony,” Wright said. “I felt so bad for him.”
Virginia coach TonyBennett has to wear the historical hair shirt, the burden of being The First. He broke a 33-year-old, 135-game winning streak for No. 1 seeds against 16s. Not only that, he did so in spectacularly awful fashion — not just beaten but routed. Humiliated by a team that earlier this season lost by 44 points to Albany.
Quickly, Bennett and his retrograde style of play came under withering — and justifiable — criticism. His March record at Virginia spiraled from bad to utterly disastrous.
Hundreds of miles away, Wright watched and felt a twinge of empathy.
He thought back to 2006, and his first No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. That Villanova team was playing Monmouth in the first round, in Philadelphia, about 15 miles from the ‘Nova campus. When Monmouth made a late rally and cut the Wildcats’ lead to seven points, Wright was stunned by the reaction.
“The whole crowd turned on us,” he recalled Saturday. “In our home arena, they turned on us. It’s unbelievable how the crowd will pull for the underdog and against the No. 1 seed.
“Every team that has been in that spot feels for Tony.”
The escapees from that hellish spot can all relate to the acute horror Virginia must have felt as the situation worsened against UMBC. Top seed Georgetown was an errant shot at the buzzer away from losing to Princeton in 1989. Popeye Jones took 36 shots and scored 37 points as Murray State pushed No. 1 Michigan State into overtime in 1990. Holy Cross led No. 1 Kansas and Roy Williams in the final 10 minutes in 2002, and was within three with 2:36 to play.
But the No. 1s never went down. And as the streak grew and the years rolled by without the history-making upset, the likelihood of it ever happening seemed to decrease in inverse proportion.
Until Friday. The shock was not only that it came to pass, but that it didn’t require some epic hero shot for a last-second triumph. It was a beatdown that simply kept building on itself, one brassy UMBC basket and one panicked Virginia response at a time.
Perhaps that dynamic actually helped Bennett handle the worst nightmare of every No. 1 seed with an almost inhuman poise. He had several minutes for the reality to sink in — by far the worst of several March flops at Virginia — as opposed to reality arriving with a buzzer-beating haymaker at the end.
“I thought Tony did such a great job after the game in expressing his feelings, and really the feelings of what you should feel as a coach,” said Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who has had more NCAA tourney No. 1 seeds than anyone. “And that is, we all understand that when we go into that arena, some great things can happen. But also, some really difficult things can happen.
“They’ve been so damn good, they’ve been the best team in the country. And then they have an injury [freshman De’Andre Hunter], and then you don’t have much time to prepare. You don’t have any games to prepare for what you’re going to do when you have that injury.
“So, my heart goes out to him. We’ve lost in the first round a couple of times, and we’ve lost to teams that were deserving of winning. You know, like UMBC was deserving of winning. … So, I just thought he handled it so well, and what a great example for all coaches to not just handle victory well, but to handle defeat, because you’re going to experience both.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, another March mainstay whose teams have had top seeds over the years, echoed that sentiment and offered his support for Bennett.
“TonyBennett is in my top two or three coaches in the country by far,” Boeheim said, per DailyOrange.com. “Unfortunately, in our business, it’s all about the tournament when you’re a good team. When you just get in, like now I’m a great coach. I’m, [expletive], I’m no better than I was two weeks ago.
” … If I could hire a coach in this country and I could get Tony Bennett, there would be nobody in second place. Nobody. He’s kicked our ass every time we’ve played him except we got lucky once.”
The next coach in that awful position of leading a losing No. 1 will have a strong example to study — but also far less of a historical burden. Tony Bennett took the bullet for everyone. Whoever is second will merely be a footnote.
“It if happens again, as coaches you know at least we’re not the first,” Wright said.
The irony, of course, is that Bennett’s postgame poise was so completely at odds with his team’s performance on the court. The defensive breakdowns were astonishing for the No. 1 defensive team in America, and incoherent shot selection compounded the issue. The most disciplined, rigid, controlled team in the country just dissolved into anomie as the Retrievers kept playing.
But at least the coach regrouped afterward. And that’s what Jay Wright texted to Tony Bennett late on a history-making Friday night.
“No one could handle that with as much class as you did,” Wright wrote. “And it could have happened to any of us.”
More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• UMBC shocks Virginia, first 16-seed ever to beat a No. 1
• What is UMBC? Everything you need to know about the university
• UMBC’s upset eliminated last perfect bracket in Yahoo Sports Tourney Pick’em
• Where UMBC’s upset of Virginia ranks among all-time greatest upsets
• Meet UMBC’s other hero, the man behind its famous Twitter account