MINNEAPOLIS — For years, the Virginia Cavaliers were accused of boring their opponents into defeat. They guarded relentlessly. They milked offensive possessions. They celebrated shot clock violations the way other programs celebrate alley-oop dunks.
Their critics, who were legion and included pretty much every major talking head who wasn’t a former basketball coach, claimed the Cavaliers played a style that couldn’t possibly win six consecutive NCAA tournament games. And given what happened last year, those critics seemed to have a point.
Yet as Monday bleeds into Tuesday, Virginia guard Ty Jerome sits at his locker wearing a new white hat. Under the gold bill is the word CHAMPIONS.
Boring? The Cavaliers trailed with at most 13 seconds remaining in regulation in the Elite Eight, in a national semifinal and in the national title game. They won all three. This brand of boring causes heart attacks. “I just feel so bad for [ESPN’s] Stephen A. Smith,” Jerome deadpans. “He said he hated watching us. And he had to watch us every single round of the tournament. I feel so bad for him. It must have been so hard for him.”
The Cavaliers produced anxiety as effectively as they produced heroes. In the Elite Eight against Purdue, freshman Kihei Clark flung a pass that Mamadi Diakite turned into a buzzer beater to force overtime. In the Final Four against Auburn, guard Kyle Guy sank a three-pointer to keep the Cavaliers in it and then won the game with three free throws. Monday, guard De’Andre Hunter scored 27, hitting three-pointers to keep Virginia alive in regulation and to take control in overtime of an 85–77 win against Texas Tech that put the lie to thousands of “first to 50 wins” predictions.
Asked how the Cavaliers could stay so calm when facing almost certain defeat, Jerome thinks for a moment. “We’re probably not as calm as we look,” he says. “We just always believe in each other. If we have a fighting chance, we’re going to keep trying to make the right play. Guys are not afraid of the moment.”
They weren’t afraid of the moment, because no on-court result could be worse than the one they endured at the end of last season. After those two hellish hours, it seemed these Cavaliers would be remembered only for one game. But as Guy pointed out frequently this season, we all walked in on one chapter of their story. They controlled the next one.
Nearly everyone dreams of making history in some way, but aspiring history-makers rarely consider the possibility of being the first to do something truly embarrassing. Virginia made history in 2018. The Cavaliers were the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed. But that wasn’t all. Virginia was the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, and the Cavaliers lost to UMBC by 20. In an April 2018 Facebook post that must have left blood on the keyboard, Guy explained how it feels to be that kind of trailblazer. “There aren’t many people who know what it’s like to be the ONLY person (program in this instance) in the world to be on the wrong side of history,” the future 2019 Final Four Most Outstanding Player wrote. “No one has done this before and it might be a while before it happens again, so no one understands the sheer pain and fear to be ridiculed.”
For the entire offseason, Virginia coach Tony Bennett wrestled with how to address the UMBC loss when the Cavaliers reconvened for preseason practice. “How am I going to frame this?” he asked his wife Laurel. Laurel Bennett had an idea. Nearly four years earlier, she had attended a series of TED Talks in Charlottesville. One talk stuck with her. Donald Davis, a former Methodist minister from North Carolina who makes his living as a professional storyteller, had spun a yarn about his father. Laurel loved the story so much when she heard it that she showed it to her son and daughter as soon as it was posted on YouTube. But she hadn’t thought about it for a while. As she pondered her husband’s dilemma, Davis’s honeyed twang rang in her ears. She fired Tony a link to the YouTube clip titled How The Story Transforms The Teller. “That’s how your team has to look at this,” Laurel Bennett remembers thinking. “You’re not going to get better or grow stronger from that loss just because it happened. The only way you get better is if you respond to it the right way.”
Tony clicked on the video, and there was Davis on stage in his bow tie. Davis explained that everyone in his tiny Appalachian hometown called his father Banker Joe, but one day an older acquaintance of Joe’s referred to him as Cripple Joe. Davis, angered at what he perceived as a slight, asked his father how the man could be so mean. Davis’s father responded with a story.
When Joe was five years old, he sliced his leg with an ax. The injury would render Joe unable to work the family farm with his brothers as he grew older. So everyone in town referred to him as Cripple Joe. But Joe’s mother—Donald’s grandmother—offered some sage advice. She told Joe to tell the story of his injury to anyone who asked about it. “If you don’t tell this story enough, when you’re 50 years old and you look at your leg, you’ll be five again and you’ll be pitiful,” Davis said on the stage that day in 2014, channeling his grandmother. “Because when something happens to you, she said, it sits on top of you like a rock. And if you never tell the story, it sits on you forever. But as you begin to tell the story, you climb out from under that rock and eventually you sit up on top of it.”
Cripple Joe stopped feeling angry that he couldn’t work the farm. Instead, he went to business school. He returned home and launched a successful career that allowed him to help raise his younger siblings after his father’s death. He became Banker Joe in part because he had continued to tell his story. “It is never, never tragic when something people think is bad happens to you,” said Davis, who holds degrees from Davidson and Duke. “Because if you can learn to use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place you would never have gone any other way.”
Tony Bennett watched the talk, and he had an idea. When the Cavaliers arrived for their first day of practice in October, they expected a grueling workout to help them prepare to play their exhausting Pack-Line defense during the season. Instead, all they did was watch a 17-minute TED Talk. “You’re not telling the story to change what happened,” Davis said on the screen. “You’re telling the story to change you.”
And so the Cavaliers told their story whenever someone asked…
Guy told the story. He told it at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center—the site of the UMBC loss—for the ACC’s basketball media day in late October. He, Bennett and forward Jack Salt stayed in the same hotel they’d stayed in for the UMBC game. Guy already had practice telling the story. He’d poured it out in the Facebook post in April. He’d already recounted how the Cavaliers needed a police escort and had to enter that hotel through the back door following the loss because someone had sent death threats.
So he was ready when the first question he got was about the loss. “For me, it's never forgetting it, but definitely trying to move past it to where I'm not hanging my head on it,” Guy responded. “I think it's taken me a little bit longer than some of the other guys, but that's just because I'm an emotional kid and I'm real passionate about things. That cut me real deep.” To make sure he never forgot, Guy had set a photo of him slumped over as UMBC won as the background of his phone.
Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford told the story. For about three days after the loss, he couldn’t leave his house. He didn’t shave. He barely moved. He only thought about what he could have done differently, how the Cavaliers could somehow unmake their place in basketball history. Finally, after Williford’s wife asked him Are you OK? enough times, he realized he needed to grab a razor and face the outside world. The only way to change the story would be to move forward and write a new ending.
Jerome told the story. When he drove from Charlottesville to visit his parents in New Rochelle, N.Y., last summer, he passed multiple signs for UMBC as he drove through Maryland on both legs of the trip. “The whole summer I didn’t make peace with it,” Jerome says. “I’ve always been a gym rat, but that loss took me to a whole different level.” Members of Virginia’s strength staff had to throw Jerome out of the basketball facility on multiple occasions during the summer because they worried a desire to improve might lapse into an unhealthy obsession.
Hunter told the story. He missed the UMBC game with a broken wrist, and he took the loss differently. He thought about it for a week. Then he tried to erase it from his mind. But he couldn’t. So guess who was in the gym with Jerome on most of those nights?
Bennett told the story. In the moments after UMBC players celebrated at midcourt, he chose Guy and Jerome to join him at the postgame press conference. Seniors Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall were suffering enough. That would be their final college basketball memory, and there was nothing Bennett could do to change that. But he could avoid twisting the knife by making them answer questions about it. So Bennett picked two sophomores who still had time to make things right. “We’re going to go up there, and it's going to be one of the hardest things you ever have to do,” Bennett recalled telling the players. “But it's going to mark your life, and this is going to be something we're going to try to overcome.” Not long after, he took Jerome to lunch. There, they discussed how the Cavaliers might evolve offensively so that they could come back if they found themselves in a double-digit hole in the NCAA tournament. “From a basketball standpoint, that was such a pivotal moment and devastating in so many ways and humbling that I knew we had to be there for each other in ways we never would have had that not happened,” Bennett says. “So it was about sitting together, talking, and just working through stuff and battling through it, and trusting each other.”
Virginia assistant Brad Soderberg told the story. The Cavaliers went 29–3 and earned another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. An unlucky 13 minutes into their first-round matchup against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb, the Cavaliers trailed by 14. Soderberg’s chest tightened. This couldn’t be happening again, could it? “I was really uptight,” he says. “And I don’t think I’m a bad guy for that. I think that was real. It’s one thing to be the first one seed to lose to a 16, but it did cross my mind ‘How about doing it two years in a row?’ You can’t just slough it off and say ‘Keep going guys.’ I felt it." But the Cavaliers’ shots began to fall. They cut the deficit to six by halftime. They took the lead less than four minutes into the second half and rolled to a 71–56 win.
“I didn’t ask the other guys ‘Did you feel it?’ But I know we all did,” Soderberg says. “The way I know is when that game was over in the locker room, you’d have thought we won the national championship.”
After that, everyone relaxed. They had started lifting that rock off themselves by telling their stories. When they eliminated the possibility of a repeat faceplant, they flung away stone and smashed it to pieces. Now the next chapter could truly begin.
And what a chapter it was. Reaching the national title game required two borderline miracles.
The first came in the Elite Eight in Louisville, Ky., with 16.9 seconds remaining. Purdue’s Ryan Cline had just made a free throw to give the Boilermakers a 70–67 lead. If Cline made the next free throw, Virginia would have no chance. Purdue would advance to the Final Four, and guard Carsen Edwards’s 42-point night would go down as one of the greatest in NCAA tournament history. But Cline missed.
Purdue coach Matt Painter ordered his team to foul. Now Jerome stood at the foul line with 5.9 seconds remaining. He made the first free throw. Though afterward everyone would assume he missed the second on purpose, Jerome intended to make the second. “I short-armed it,” he says. Diakite couldn’t get in position to grab the rebound, so he swatted the ball toward the other white jerseys. It sailed over the midcourt stripe, and Clark collected the ball at the top of the opposite key with three seconds remaining.
The rest of the Cavaliers’ players and coaches agree that if they’d found themselves in that position, they’d have thrown up a desperate shot. But Clark, less than a year removed from high school, whipped one of the best passes in tourney history to Diakite, who collected the ball and hit a jumper over the outstretched arm of 7’3” Purdue center Matt Haarms as time expired. Virginia had come back from the dead to force overtime, and the Cavaliers would gut out an 80–75 win.
Virginia looked dead again a week later at U.S. Bank Stadium. Auburn led 61–57 as Jerome dribbled on the right wing with the clock barreling toward zero. He had to do something, but he seemed in no hurry. Near the baseline, Guy ran around a picket fence of screens until he reached the right corner. Jerome flung the ball. Guy caught and shot. The Virginia section roared as the ball fell through with 7.4 seconds remaining, but the Cavaliers still trailed. They had to foul. Once again, an opponent stood at the foul line with a chance to bury Virginia. Auburn guard Jared Harper made his first shot. He missed the second. The unkilliable Hoos thought they’d get one more shot. Instead, they got three.
Just before the buzzer blared, Guy rose from the left corner and fired a three-pointer. The ball caromed off the rim, and Auburn players rushed the court to celebrate. Guy heard the whistle before anyone else. Auburn’s Samir Doughty had collided with Guy’s right thigh as he shot. Guy would get three free throws. If he could make them all, Virginia would play for a national title.
“I would have lost my mind,” Diakite says. The mind-losing was reserved for the Auburn fans incensed referees missed a double dribble by Jerome and upset that Doughty was called for the kind of contact that had been ignored for most of the game. Guy stayed calm, though. After the whistle, he lifted his jersey over his face to steal a private moment to collect himself. Then he made the first shot. Then he made the second. Then Auburn coach Bruce Pearl called a timeout to ice Guy. As the Cavaliers huddled, Guy stood off to the side alone. “I just wanted to be in my own space,” Guy says. Then Guy went back to the line and sank the third to seal a 63–62 win. “We all practiced those shots as a kid,” Guy says. “They were probably a little bit more spectacular than free throws, but whatever it takes to win.”
Once again, Virginia had survived when the season—by all rights—should have ended. “You can call it luck. You can call it religion. You can call it magic,” Guy says. “This is March Madness.”
It would only get more madder.
Monday, Virginia led by eight with a little more than five minutes to play when Texas Tech began riding back. The lead shrank until a twisting layup by Big 12 Player of the Year Jarrett Culver with 35 seconds remaining gave the Red Raiders a 66–65 lead. Norense Odiase made two free throws 13 seconds later to stretch the lead to three. Once again, Virginia was down to its final possession. This time, Hunter caught the ball in the right corner. His three-pointer sailed through the net with 12.9 seconds remaining.
Virginia made a stop on the other end, but Hunter didn’t see Guy trying to call timeout to set up a final shot. Hunter threw a pass that sailed by Guy and out of bounds, giving Texas Tech the ball with a second to play. But Virginia’s Braxton Key blocked Culver’s potential game-winner, and the teams went to overtime.
In overtime, the title turned on yet another rebound tapped to the other end of the court. With Virginia up two thanks to another Hunter three-pointer, Jerome missed a floater and three would-be rebounders swatted the ball toward the other basket. Texas Tech’s Davide Moretti ran it down, but Hunter batted the ball from his hand. After initially awarding possession to Texas Tech, the three officials huddled around a replay screen. A slow-motion closeup appeared to show the ball bouncing off Moretti’s pinky finger. Virginia got the ball and proceeded to go 8 of 8 from the free throw line. It ended, fittingly, with the ball in Hunter’s hands. He grabbed a rebound and then flung the ball into the air as the horn blared.
A few minutes later, confetti covered the floor. The nets had been cut down. Guy, Hunter and Jerome sat together in the corner of a stage at midcourt and watched this tournament’s "One Shining Moment" montage. Virginia’s presence in last year’s consisted of a shot of Guy looking miserable as a UMBC player celebrated. This year’s ended with Guy skipping around the court just before he was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. At some point in the coming days, Guy will choose a new photo as the background on his phone. “It’s going to be me celebrating,” he says.
It was Guy’s fiancée Alexa Jenkins who encouraged him to write down his feelings last year. Guy was the first Cavalier to tell the tale. The rest followed, buying themselves a ticket to a place they never would have gotten any other way. Monday night, Jenkins stood on the court beaming.
“It was,” she says, “the ultimate redemption story.”