Before national championship game that would complete a seasonlong catharsis, Virginia coach Tony Bennett told his team, "You guys faced pressure nobody in the history of the game has faced."
Coaches can often become prisoners of the moment—not to mention prone to hyperbole—but there was merit to Bennett's proclamation. A year ago his top-seeded Cavaliers lost their NCAA tournament opener to Maryland-Baltimore County, becoming the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 since the field expanded to 64 in 1985. The 2019 Big Dance was a salvage mission for once-again top-seeded UVa—the program's belief in its record-setting Pack Line defense was at stake.
Could Virginia get over the unprecedented ignominy of its loss? Could upperclassmen Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De'Andre Hunter and Jack Salt prove they could win in March? Could Bennett's plodding pace prove viable over six elimination games?
Really, these questions were in the making longer than just one year. The Cavs had been eliminated by a lower-seeded team every March from 2014 to '16, then lost by 26 as a No. 5 to No. 4 Florida in '17. All that baggage carried over to their '19 opener. Whereupon UVa promptly fell behind No. 16 Gardner-Webb by 14 points. The nightmare was repeating, but the Cavaliers wouldn't let it become reality again, prevailing 71-56.
"You did not panic in that moment," Bennett told his team three weeks later, before it faced Texas Tech for the title. "And you fought, and you found a way out. That, I think, has prepared you for this moment to be able to handle the pressure or the intensity of a national championship game."
To be sure, Virginia got used to pressure in the tournament. It trailed in the final 15 seconds of regulation in each of its final three games.
In the final they trailed by three when Jerome, a junior point guard, came flashing upcourt and drove into the lane, firing a pass to the 6'7" Hunter in the corner for a three with 13 seconds left to force OT. They won it there 85-77.
So how do you climb out of a seemingly bottomless pit? One step at a time. After UMBC, Guy opened up about his battles with anxiety. Bennett deepened his faith—and tweaked his offensive approach by adding more ball screens and movement. Eventually, Virginia began to view the worst NCAA tournament loss ever as a gift to grow from.
Said Bennett, "If you learn to use it right, the adversity will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn't have gone any other way."