MINNEAPOLIS — They were the ultimate embarrassment one year ago, a complete laughingstock. No one remembered or truly cared about the 31 wins or the ACC regular-season title. That became irrelevant. All that mattered was the loss. You know the one, the four letters that will forever live in infamy.
Kyle Guy didn’t want to get out of bed. When he walked across campus, it was with his head bowed and a hoodie pulled down praying he wouldn’t be noticed. The stares came in endless waves, there were even Venmo requests, college kids asking for money just because, well, Guy and his teammates had become a joke.
Virginia had done the unthinkable, becoming the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16.
“It’s always going to be a part of the story, but it doesn’t mean it’ll be the end of the story,” Guy told me prior to the start of the season.
Bennett and his players handled it with class and humility from the first time I spoke to Virginia’s coach in July at the Peach Jam AAU event down in Augusta, Georgia. He made it clear that he wasn’t going to hide, and neither would his players. They were going to hit this head-on and try and learn from it.
“I think if we use it right, you have to embrace it,” Bennett said while describing the loss as humbling and crushing. “It’s part of our story. That’s not going to change.”
“We’re going to own it,” he added.
Virginia won another regular-season title this season, but let’s face it: None of that mattered. Nothing shy of a national championship would truly erase the pain of the loss a year ago. Bennett spoke all season about running to the starting line, not the finish line — and that’s exactly what this team did. They stayed the course and didn’t try and rush to the first round of the NCAA tournament to exorcise their demons.
The Cavaliers were down to another No. 16 seed, this time Gardner-Webb, by double-digits in the first round and it sent shockwaves through the NCAA tourney. But Virginia wound up pulling away in the second half. That was just the start of the constant jitters, though. Bennett and his team needed some luck throughout March and even April — with a picturesque, unforgettable play to beat Purdue in which Ty Jerome tipped a missed free throw back to Kihei Clark — who delivered a perfect pass to Mamadi Diakite that rescued the Cavaliers. Then in the National Semifinals, it was Guy who got fouled with .6 seconds left and buried a trio of free throws to pull off another miraculous win against Auburn.
But it looked as though Virginia’s luck may have finally run out. Texas Tech, the best defensive team in the country, led by three points with 22.5 seconds left after a pair of free throws. However, Virginia came down and a missed defensive assignment by the Red Raiders resulted in a wide-open De’Andre Hunter 3-pointer that ultimately forced overtime – a five-minute stretch in which Virginia made all 12 of its free throws and pulled away for an 88-75 win.
When the final buzzer sounded and Virginia had avenged the loss to UMBC with a national championship, Guy didn’t shed a single tear. Not even when his eyes first met those of his fiancee, Alexa Jenkins, somewhere on the court after the confetti had fallen.
“She was crying, and she’s not a crier. I’m the crier,” Guy said. “I’m emotional, but it still hasn’t set in yet. It doesn’t feel real. I’m going to bawl like a baby tonight when it all sets in.”
“It’s the ultimate redemption story,” Alexa said of the ride from a year ago.
Guy won the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, but it could have just as easily been Jerome or Hunter. Jerome was just as important, making critical plays and directing the offense. Hunter, who didn’t play in last year’s loss to UMBC due to a broken wrist, was the star of Monday night’s game with a career-high 27 points, including the critical 3 that got the game to overtime. Without Clark and Diakite, the Cavs wouldn’t have gotten past Purdue in the Elite Eight.
While the national title will fill the emptiness left from a year ago, Guy and his teammates understand that they will never fully be able to escape that chapter of the story.
“I’m sure we’ll still hear about it, just less,” Guy said. “That’s what everybody’s comeback is going to be, but I’m all ears. I’m a national champion. You can’t take that away.”
“You have a scar, and it reminds you of that, but it’s a memory,” Bennett added. “Does it go away completely? No, I wish it wouldn’t have happened in some ways. Now I say, well, it bought us a ticket here. So be it.”
Virginia won its first-ever national title, and did it like no other. They hit absolute rock bottom only to bounce back one year later and reach the pinnacle. Now fans will no longer be able to criticize Bennett for a single setback instead of praising him for his four ACC regular-season titles over the past six years.
Not that he really cares.
“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,” Dick Bennett said after the game. “Had he been so broken-hearted, it would have been much more difficult.”
The elder Bennett made an appearance on Monday night after being unable to do so on Saturday due to anxiety. It wasn’t necessarily to see his son celebrate, but instead in case of another heartbreak.
“I had to be here. I just had to,” Dick Bennett said. “I thought it was more important to be here in case they lost.”
But that didn’t happen.
Now Guy and his teammates will return to Charlottesville with their heads held high. They have changed the narrative, and this was exactly how it was scripted.
“We might as well win a National Championship this year,” Guy told me back in October. “It’s a better story.”