This story appears in the April 22–29, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Tony Bennett wasn't making this trip alone. All season Virginia's mantra had been "united pursuit," and so on Saturday, April 13, when the coach was summoned to a small stage mounted at the 50-yard line of Scott Stadium for an official championship celebration, "the architect of it all" did not emerge from the brick-walled end zone tunnel until the rest of his Cavaliers were in tow. They strolled out in a loose single-file line behind Bennett, all in matching navy championship T-shirts, soaking in the roars of some 21,000 fans as their coach, a navy polo tucked neatly into his khakis, repeatedly shook his head in disbelief. "These guys, they're part of one of the greatest stories that I've ever seen written," Bennett said to the crowd. "And it'll be told over and over again."
It is a story whose origins hung over the event like a specter. It was imbued in the event's entire premise and was brought to the fore right there at the onset of the highlight package played after Bennett's speech: "The greatest upset in the history of this tournament," said Jim Nantz in a snippet laid over somber piano chords.
A year ago this program was largely written off, branded frauds and chokers after losing in the first round to 16th-seeded UMBC, supposedly incapable of doing what they had come to that football stadium to commemorate. Now, on a gigantic stadium video board, the team watched a recap of one of college basketball's most thrilling, dramatic and emotionally redemptive title runs set to a song—"Stronger Than I've Ever Been," by Kaleena Zanders—that first inspired Bennett when he heard it during a tennis telecast last September. "We talk about being strengthened by the blow that cut us down," the coach said, his team seated behind him as proof that they had.
Bennett told another story, this one from January, when the Cavaliers traveled to play Clemson. The Tigers were celebrating their national title in football, and Bennett took in the scene and wondered, What would it be like if Virginia held an event like this? "That day is now!" Bennett shouted, punching the air with a balled fist. It was a rare outburst of emotion for the even-keeled coach, whose top-of-the-ladder scream after beating Purdue to earn a Final Four berth seemed as incongruous as catching a monk Milly Rocking.
Bennett had been more typically restrained five days earlier, in a momentarily quiet locker room at another football stadium some 1,100 miles northwest. There Bennett draped his arms around the shoulders of his starting guards, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, and addressed a circle of Cavaliers still in their first hour as national champions. "Do this for me," Bennett implored his team in Minneapolis. "Promise me you guys will remain so humble and so thankful through this all." Here was a lesson Virginia's run might illustrate: What you do may change, but stay who you are.
The most important meal of Virginia's historic season came in the wake of its historic defeat in March 2018, at a since rebranded wraps-and-smoothies spot in a strip mall north of the Grounds. A few days after falling to UMBC, Bennett rang Jerome to meet him for lunch and a discussion for how the Cavaliers might tweak their offense, which was the 21st most efficient in the nation heading into the 2018 tournament but scored just 0.87 points per possession against the Retrievers. The goal was not reinvention but adjustment: more flexibility, more continuity, more spreading of the floor. After a summer of tinkering, the ball-screen-heavy result helped power the best offense of Bennett's 13-season coaching career. "That [loss] was devastating in so many ways that I knew we had to be there for each other," Bennett said the week of the Final Four. "So it was about sitting together, talking, and just working through stuff and battling through it, and trusting each other."
What Virginia could not change was its past. After years of premature tournament exits as a high seed, the UMBC loss—the first ever by a No. 1 seed to a No. 16—seemed to sink the 'Hoos rep completely. "Tony really stays immune from the social media stuff," says Liberty coach and long-time Bennett assistant Ritchie McKay. "I don't think he really ever heard the noise, if you will, until the UMBC loss, when everyone said, That style doesn't win." The noise declared the deliberately paced Cavaliers unequipped to mount the comebacks needed for March success, their formula forever damning them to disappointment. Though it should be noted that the reaction around Charlottesville was more tempered. Says Barry Parkhill, a Virginia star in the 1970s who is now an associate athletic director, "The only worry anyone had is, 'Is Tony happy? Can we keep him?'"
When Bennett took the Virginia job 10 years ago, his father, former Wisconsin and Washington State coach Dick Bennett, gave him some advice: Make sure you get guys you can lose with first. The idea was to bring in players who could endure the struggles of program-building, but the younger Bennett's program now faced the test of having lost with one another in a way no other team had before. The Cavs' response was to look inward to find what they needed to face outward.
Bennett first set the tone in the UMBC game's immediate wake, with a graceful TV interview he was not required to do. In the fall he showed the team a TED Talk his wife, Laurel, had sent him about the importance of telling one's story in order to grow from it. "Because if you can learn to use it right," said the speaker, a former minister named Donald Davis, "it can buy you a ticket to a place you would never have gone any other way."
The process was already underway. In April 2018, Guy shared a pair of Facebook posts disclosing the "sugar rush of desolation" he felt after losing to UMBC, as well as his battles with anxiety. He and his teammates answered question after question about the loss and its effects throughout the season. When Duke fans attempted to crowdfund a trip for UMBC guard K.J. Maura to attend Virginia's regular-season game in Durham, Guy retweeted it with an endorsement. (Maura ended up not attending.) "They take after Tony," says Virginia athletic director Carla Williams. "He handled it so graciously every single time it was brought to him, and the players just did the same thing."
The questions followed the Cavaliers into the tournament, even though their offense was ranked second nationally in efficiency and sophomore wing De'Andre Hunter, who missed the UMBC loss with a broken wrist, had developed into a two-way NBA lottery prospect. Still, Virginia operated at its own tempo, wearing down opponents where other contenders might blow by them. Chests tightened throughout Charlottesville when the 'Hoos fell behind 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb by 14 in their first half of NCAA tournament play; this time they not only came back but won by 15. By the time 5'9" freshman Kihei Clark hit Mamadi Diakite with a perfect, 40-foot pass for a gametying buzzer beater against Purdue in the Elite Eight, this Virginia team seemed charmed. The feeling only grew in the national semifinal when Guy drew a controversially (and correctly) called shooting foul on a last-second three, then nailed a game-winning trio of free throws and the postgame quote too. "You can call it luck. You can call it religion. You can call it magic," Guy said. "This is March Madness."
For its finale, Virginia faced a Texas Tech D with the best adjusted efficiency of the 18-season analytics era—and scored 85 points while performing better on a per-possession basis than any other Red Raiders opponent had all season. It was one of the best offensive showings in recent title game history and one last, fitting defiance of expectations to bring home a title so many thought the Cavaliers could not win.
It took almost four days for Bennett to watch the final game, and even then only the second half. In the days between he had tried to respond to the roughly 500 text messages of congratulations and caught a Leon Bridges concert at Sprint Pavilion. In March 2018, Jerome returned to campus hiding his face under a hood; last week the players couldn't leave a lecture without being cajoled into posing for photos with classmates. "It's been fun," Guy says. "It comes with the territory."
"I think it's new to everyone every day," says Williams, the athletic director. "You wake up and it's, Hey, we won a national championship." She says this in a football locker room on the ground level of Scott Stadium. On the field and in the stands the celebration is gearing up, EDM beats booming from the speakers. "It's confirmation that the way Tony does it is the right way to do it," Williams says, "that we need to continue doing things the way we're doing them."
With that she heads to the tunnel and the ceremony, where she will receive the first of the afternoon's standing ovations. It is a crowd easily brought to cheers—when program legend Ralph Sampson notes he's wearing his lucky orange Pumas, when Hunter jokes about Jerome shooting too much, when the video board shows Guy's final free throw against Auburn for the umpteenth time. Thousands swoon when Guy notes that he thought Hunter or Jerome, and not him, should have been named Most Outstanding Player, then applaud after freshman Francesco Badocchi taps out "One Shining Moment" on a keyboard. The sounds of joy rise from the open-air stadium, surely echoing across the Lawn and beyond. It's a noise that is beautiful and earned, and everyone involved wants those listening to know where it came from.