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Virginia’s Upset Loss to Furman Further Proves 2019 National Title Was a Fluke

Since winning it all, Tony Bennett’s team has suffered a series of losses and disappointments.

The March gods have settled the score with Kihei Clark. The Virginia guard’s one shining moment of 2019 has now been coldly counterbalanced by one shattering error. One pass giveth glory, and another taketh it away.

And the Cavaliers’ blissful NCAA Tournament championship run four years ago continues to be a blip. A fluke. A one-time reversal of fortune. A title is forever, but it's also not indicative of what Virginia basketball really is.

Thirteen-seed Furman’s 68–67 defeat of No. 4 seed Virginia Thursday is a reminder of all that is wonderful about March Madness: the underdog, the dramatic shot, the small-school dream come true. It’s also a reminder that the only thing separating Virginia from being the runaway winner of Worst Tourney Program Ever was six fate-kissed games four years ago.

Since winning it all with a succession of nail-biters, this is Tony Bennett’s tourney body of work: first-round upset loss to No. 13 seed Ohio; NIT; first-round upset loss to No. 13 seed Furman.

And this was Bennett’s Virginia body of work before 2018: first-round upset loss to No. 16 seed UMBC, merely the biggest upset in tournament history; second-round loss to No. 4 seed Florida; regional final loss as a No. 1 seed to No. 10 seed Syracuse; second-round upset loss as a No. 2 seed to No. 7 seed Michigan State; Sweet Sixteen upset loss as a No. 1 seed to No. 4 seed Michigan State; NIT; blowout first-round loss as a No. 10 seed to No. 7 Florida.

The record: 6–0 in 2019, 7–8 otherwise. The Cavaliers are serial underachievers, glass-jawed tourney softies, the opponent every double-digit seed wants to see in its bracket on Selection Sunday.

This time around, the karma was unkind to Clark—without whom Virginia would not have won the title or even made the Final Four—in 2019. As a freshman, he made the play that forced overtime in the regional final against Purdue: sprinting to track down a long rebound in the final seconds; refraining from launching a half-court shot; and coolly firing a pass to big man Mamadi Diakite for a jumper that barely left his hands before the buzzer. It was one of the smartest spur-of-the-moment, do-or-die plays in the history of March Madness.

Virginia would go on to win that game in overtime, then beat Auburn in the Final Four with three free throws in the final second, then beat Texas Tech in OT for the title. Clark’s heroic place in school history was secured.

He stuck around Virginia for four more seasons, playing a total of 161 games, a fixture in Bennett’s grinding style of play. And it ended brutally Thursday.

Trapped in the corner with time running out and Virginia leading Furman by two, Clark did not call timeout. The internal clock that worked so perfectly four years ago failed him this time. Figuring, apparently, that time would run out if he just heaved the ball toward the heavens, the lob instead was intercepted by Garrett Hien at midcourt. He passed to J.P. Pegues on the wing, who launched and made the three-pointer that shook the tournament with 2.4 seconds left. Virginia’s last-gasp shot missed, and the first major upset of March Madness was in the books.

It was a sight the Cavaliers are accustomed to, watching the underdog sprinting around the court in joy as their season comes to a quick and inglorious ending. Bennett should thank that 2019 team every day for making the plays that have kept him from being a complete March bust. That’s all he’s got.