One year after historic loss, drama-addicted Virginia has willed itself to title game

MINNEAPOLIS — From November through February, Virginia is a basketball monolith. It is the most consistent of entities, as solid and immovable as a mountain, as reliable as the sunrise, the most predictable thing in an unpredictable sport.

As an annual article of faith, Virginia will be good. Virginia will be deliberate and methodical, to the point of stultifying. Virginia will be flairless and fundamentally sound and defensively diligent while adhering to the dogma of its coach, Tony Bennett. With 29 or more wins in five of the last six seasons, its course from November through February has been inalterable.

And then we hit March (and now April), and buttoned-up Virginia becomes a high school at prom-invitation time. Endless drama. Overwrought emotions. Frayed nerves. So many tears, now so much joy.

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Virginia's crash landing in the national championship game Monday night opposite Texas Tech is the basketball equivalent of Sully putting it down safely in the Hudson River. It is a combination of steely nerves and extreme luck, the culmination of a fate-kissed flight from the wreckage of UMBC in 2018.

Following that historic loss in Charlotte, the backlash was so toxic that the players were escorted by law enforcement back to their hotel rooms after death threats were received. Since then, the drama has all come with happy endings.

It started with a scramble from 14 down to No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb in the NCAA tournament first round, as the Cavaliers flirted with doing the inconceivable again.

It continued with the grind past No. 12 Oregon, in which Virginia didn't lead for good until the final four minutes and made just three field goals in the last 7½ — but the Ducks only made one.

Virginia Cavaliers guard Kyle Guy (5) is hoisted up by Austin Katstra (45) as time expired on their win over the Auburn Tigers. He made three free throws to win the game with .6 seconds on the clock during semifinal action at U.S. Bank Stadium. (Getty)
Virginia Cavaliers guard Kyle Guy (5) is hoisted up by Austin Katstra (45) as time expired on their win over the Auburn Tigers. He made three free throws to win the game with .6 seconds on the clock during semifinal action at U.S. Bank Stadium. (Getty)

It seemingly peaked with breathtaking escape against No. 3 Purdue in the South Region final, thanks to a batted rebound-sharp pass-soft shot series that barely beat the buzzer of regulation.

But then came an even more improbable escape Saturday night in the Final Four against No. 5 Auburn — rescued by a six-point Kyle Guy superhero flurry in the final seven-plus seconds, aided and abetted by a controversial officiating call and a controversial no-call.

After spending the regular season lowering eyelids, Virginia is again spending the postseason dropping jaws. Just the opposite way from usual.

Lucky to still be dancing? You better believe it, with the assistance of a broken bracket along the way. If Virginia beats the No. 3 seed Red Raiders, the Cavaliers will become just the second national champion to win it all without defeating a single No. 1 or 2 seed along the way. (The other: UNLV 1990.)

So maybe this is the succession of breaks Virginia was owed by the bracket gods after suffering the worst loss in the history of March Madness. But maybe this is also proof that a program rigidly built can learn to bend, adapt, improvise and survive after five years of spectacular self-destruction.

And maybe the best proof of that was Guy standing there in front of the whole world Saturday night, game in his hands, season on his shoulders. Last year, the UMBC loss gutted him, sending him into a dark place — but a place he emerged from after seeing a sports psychologist and publicly acknowledging that he'd been battling anxiety issues for years.

"I had to take a lot of time to myself," Guy said. "I just tried to do anything that was therapeutic for me so I could bounce back from it and be stronger as a person. I think you see the growth from that, not only with myself but with the team.

"Everyone has their why. But [after UMBC] we all had the same why. We all had the same goal in mind, and we were willing to do everything to attain that."

There stood 21-year-old Guy at the foul line Saturday night, by himself, no teammates filling the sides of the lane, with 72,711 fans scrutinizing him. In that caldron, Guy swished two free throws, enduring an icing timeout from Auburn, then swished the third for the win.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett talks to his team during a practice session for the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Friday, April 5, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett talks to his team during a practice session for the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Friday, April 5, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt York)

In the history of basketball, nobody has ever made game-winning foul shots in front of more people than the formerly anxiety-ridden Kyle Guy did Saturday night. The NBA never plays in arenas this large. International events aren't held in football stadiums. The closest thing you'd find to it is probably Rumeal Robinson’s two free throws to win the 1989 national title in Seattle, but they configured football stadiums differently in those days for basketball — attendance was less than 40,000.

Thus it can be argued that Guy's three free throws were the most pressurized the sport has ever seen. And he never even rattled the rim in draining them all.

How's that for drama? How's that for clutch?

And if you add it to the buzzer beater to tie Purdue — with freshman Kihei Clark's pass arguably the greatest spontaneous assist in NCAA tournament history — Virginia is living a blessed existence in the tournament that so routinely breaks Cavalier hearts.

Tony Bennett, who to this day has never beaten a No. 1 or 2 seed in eight NCAA tourney appearances, whose elimination losses have come against teams seeded 16th, fourth, 10th, seventh, fourth, seventh, first and sixth, only has to take down third-seeded Texas Tech to win it all and change the narrative about his coaching style.

"Coach gets a lot of slack for his style not being able to win in March," Guy said. "… We want to show everyone who's ever doubted us, this system does work."

It works far better than I gave it credit for last year, in an overreaction commensurate to the UMBC upset itself. Bennett's program is not necessarily built to fail in this tournament, but it had failed routinely and perhaps needed something as drastic as a loss to a No. 16 seed to become what it is today.

A program on the verge of a championship.

Virginia has been very lucky this tournament run. But Virginia also has been very good. Mostly, though, it has been wildly dramatic and entertaining — something it rarely is from November through February.

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