MINNEAPOLIS – So when did you figure Virginia would choke?
That’s what the Cavaliers do, right? They don’t win national championships. That’s North Carolina’s job. Or Duke’s. But here we are, on the morning after the night of their lives, and let this truth swirl around in your champagne glass:
No team in NCAA tournament history had more chances to choke than this year’s Cavaliers. And they never did. A year ago, they lost to UMBC in the biggest upset (by seed) in tournament history, but they spent the last three weeks showing enough poise to make a sword-juggling tightrope-walker jealous.
Alex Marquis knew it could have gone terribly wrong. She is junior guard Ty Jerome’s girlfriend, and after he found her in the stands for a sweaty, tear-filled hug, she admitted, “I was so nervous.”
Dick Bennett knew it. He is coach Tony Bennett’s father, and even after Virginia beat Texas Tech in overtime, Dick looked like he wished his kid had become a pharmacist. He stood on the floor and said: “I don’t want to make a big deal of it, but I just have some issues with anxiety, and that heats it up.”
Tony Bennett knew it. His players knew it. They didn’t dwell on it. They didn’t run from it. They kept the UMBC game in their pocket and went to work.
So don’t feel bad. It’s OK. Just say it: When did you think Virginia would choke?
Was it when De’Andre Hunter started the game by missing seven of his first eight shots? Or was it after the Cavaliers squandered a 10-point second-half lead and trailed by three with 22 seconds left? Hunter was unfazed by both. He hit a three with 14 seconds left, tying the game.
Or maybe you expected the choke a few seconds later, after Virginia stopped Texas Tech, and star guard Kyle Guy tried to call timeout and didn’t realize Hunter was passing to him. The ball went out of bounds. Texas Tech, not Virginia, would get the last shot of regulation, and as the final second dripped off the clock, there was Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver rising for a shot in the left corner and Virginia’s Braxton Key rising with him.
Two days earlier, in a remarkably similar situation on the other end of the court, Auburn’s Samir Doughty had fouled Guy. One of the cardinal rules of basketball is not to foul a jump shooter, and Virginia is a program built on basketball’s cardinal rules. Key went up anyway. He blocked the shot. Then Key landed and looked around, terrified that a whistle would blow. It didn’t. That’s because he blocked it without committing a foul.
In the huddle afterward, Bennett kept that UMBC loss in his pocket. He just told his team to take better care of the ball, and to get back on defense. The way to avoid falling off a cliff is to watch your step. Virginia fell behind by three, and maybe you figured: OK, that’s it, this is when Virginia chokes.
There had been so many chances to do it. The Cavaliers trailed Gardner-Webb at halftime of their first game, and anybody watching was thinking about last year. In the Sweet 16, Hunter stepped to the line with 15 seconds left and a three-point lead on Oregon and drained two shots. Two days later, Virginia survived the Carsen Edwards explosion to beat Purdue in overtime. And of course, on Saturday, Guy sank three straight free throws with no time left to beat Auburn by a point.
When you win three straight games by the width of a shoelace, there is some luck involved. Virginia could have lost any of those games for any of a dozen reasons. That’s just basketball. The Cavaliers could not control everything, but they could, amazingly, control themselves.
And say this for the Red Raiders: They didn’t wilt either. Yes, Culver shot 5-for-22, but that was because Hunter was on him like suntan lotion and Texas Tech kept going to its star anyway. For all the talk about the quality of offense these two teams would play, they put on an exceptional basketball show.
The halftime score, which many predicted to be Virginia 6, Texas Tech pi, was actually Virginia 32, Texas Tech 29. And from there it got better. And then it got better than that.
In the end, the Cavaliers had one of the calmest celebrations you’ll ever see. They talked about the former players who were there, and the people going nuts in Charlottesville.
They kept their poise even when they didn’t need it anymore.
In the afterglow of the win, Bennett stood on a podium on the court and told one of his assistants, Orlando Vandross, that it was all so unbelievable. But he looked like a man who believed it completely. He nudged Vandross to look up when “One Shining Moment” was about to play on the big screen, like you might let somebody know the traffic light was green now. And then Bennett put his hand down on the railing behind him, to make sure it was secure and nobody fell off. That railing wasn’t giving way, man. Not this year.