Long days of interstate travel, sleepless nights in college town hotels, adrenaline-packed hours on the boards in sports arenas all over the East Coast. That’s been the life of Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers as they racked up historic wins this season, but for the last two weeks, it’s also been the reality for a small crew of Cavalier Daily staffers.
Armed with press credentials and their own high hopes for the Hoos, college journos from UVA’s student-run newspaper logged hundreds of miles driving back and forth to North Carolina in recent weeks, covering a stunning ACC championship in Greensboro before turning around to follow the team through the first rounds of the NCAA tournament in Raleigh. Sports reporter Michael Eilbacher, photographer Kelsey Grant, and sports editor Zack Bartee shared stories from the path to the Sweet 16 for a post-season diary like no other.
We’re in: Sunday, March 16
Just a couple of hours after the confetti had fallen at Greensboro Coliseum in honor of UVA’s ACC tournament win, I was running on fumes, driving somewhere through Southern Virginia and trying to stay ahead of a looming snowstorm. My co-writer Zack and I were dead tired; we had just sat through one of the most exhilarating Virginia basketball games in the last 30 years, but we had to get back to Charlottesville—we had class the next day, after all.
We got what bits and pieces we could of Selection Sunday from Twitter and the radio, waiting patiently as they announced the No. 1 seed. Florida, Arizona and Wichita State were all givens. We were more interested in that last seed. Covering Virginia all year, it was hard to understand how they could be overlooked, but it was all at the whim of the selection committee at this point. As Virginia was announced as the final top seed, we let out a yell in my car—now removed from press row, we could allow ourselves to be less than impartial.
As we pulled back into Charlottesville, I was ready to collapse on my couch and sleep for a week. After the excitement of Sunday’s game, I needed a break from basketball for a little bit. But as I dropped off Zack, both of our phones lit up with an e-mail from Virginia Athletics: “ADVISORY: NCAA CREDENTIALS PROCESS.” Not long after, we got notice of a basketball press conference. A couple hours later, we were back at it.
Class went quickly that week, and I spent a lot of my time getting things ready: finding a hotel, nailing down travel plans, getting work done in preparation. By the time Friday rolled around, I was itching to go. I picked up Zack midday Friday and we headed back to North Carolina.
The madness had already started by that point. We listened to Duke’s collapse in Raleigh on the radio, hoping UVA wasn’t in for a similar fate. We got to Raleigh in time to settle in and eat quickly before heading over to PNC Arena to catch the end of the Memphis-George Washington matchup and get ready for Virginia’s game. What happened next is the stuff for another story, but we finished the night eating a pizza at 2am from the only place still open in Raleigh—and hoping to do it again next week.—Michael Eilbacher
Nail-biter: Friday, March 21
I arrived in Raleigh with high expectations. I had just been in Greensboro the previous week to photograph Virginia’s impressive ACC tournament victories, where the atmosphere was more incredible than I could have ever imagined.
Walking into the PNC Arena during the George Washington-Memphis game, I admit I was a little disappointed by the crowd. To be fair, the spectators may have been emotionally drained as a result of Mercer’s earlier upset of Duke. My initial disappointment was erased when UVA fans roared as the Virginia players left their seats in the stands to go to the locker room. It was the loudest I’d heard the crowd since arriving.
Given the team’s historic season, I wasn’t worried about Coastal Carolina. I took my seat on the court, fully expecting to get some great shots of Virginia dominating the 16th seeded team. Things started out well. A steal by Joe Harris and a few nice shots gave us the lead. UVA’s spirited pep band pumped up the Virginia fans, who overpowered the Coastal Carolina fans with early “U-V-A!” cheers. Everything seemed to be under control.
After a few minutes, it became clear that Coastal Carolina wasn’t going to go down without a fight. I couldn’t help but worry that we could be the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed. Coastal Carolina fans got louder, Virginia fans got quieter, and I started to blame myself. I had unfortunately worn Coastal Carolina colors—rookie mistake.
At halftime, I talked to the band members and we tried to calm down, reassuring ourselves that Tony Bennett would get everything under control and they would start playing the defense that they had been playing all year.
In the second half, the team we had seen most of the season returned. Evan Nolte hit clutch threes just when we needed them and we took the lead, finally quieting the obnoxious Coastal Carolina fan near me who had found it necessary to tell everyone around him that Virginia didn’t deserve to be a No. 1 seed. Once we finally regained the lead, the tension in the arena lifted, and Teven Jones began dancing on the sideline again. The return of the smiles on the Virginia players’ faces let us all know that everything was going to be O.K.
As UVA pulled away and put the game out of reach, London Perrantes and the Virginia media relations photographer near me exchanged a look that screamed: “Wow, that could have been really bad.” Fortunately, all was well—we were moving on.—Kelsey Grant
Sweet success: Sunday, March 23
Duke, Syracuse, Pitt, North Carolina, NC State. One by one, the ACC schools fell during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Twitter was abuzz as North Carolina bowed out to Iowa State Sunday. Would the Cavaliers, the ACC’s last remaining team, be the next to go?
No. 14 seed Mercer upset Duke Friday in Raleigh, spawning even more doubts. But watching Tennessee pummel Mercer to the tune of Rocky Top in the Sunday game preceding Virginia’s returned a sense of normalcy to PNC Arena.
If the Cavaliers came out and played their game against Memphis, everything would be O.K.
The venue was fitting for the ACC’s lone Sweet 16 hope. The names of basketball legends hung in the rafters: Everett Case, Norm Sloan, David Thompson, and of course the larger-than-life Jim Valvano. Former Georgetown coach John Thompson, Jr. was announcing the game courtside for WestwoodOne Radio, while NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller and Maryland great Len Elmore called the game for CBS.
With a trip to Madison Square Garden and Virginia’s first Sweet 16 since 1995 on the line, this was what March Madness is all about.
The Tigers sprinted out to a 4-0 lead and the anxiety returned. Could Memphis’ senior guards really push the tempo and force Virginia to play their game? Sitting in front of the Memphis fan section seemed to suggest so. The first two minutes were good to Tiger fans.
But soon the Cavaliers began to hit shots and clamp down on defense, well on their way to a 15-point halftime lead. The Memphis fans behind us grew increasingly discontented with the referees—apparently the Cavaliers were fouling on every possession, while the Tigers merely played immaculate defense.
But by the time Virginia’s lead swelled to 27 late in the second half, those die-hard Memphis fans were long gone. Even the man dressed as Elvis, sitting in front of my dad and little brother, had left the building.
It was probably for the best, too, because I don’t think they would have appreciated Mike Tobey jacking up a three-pointer or Evan Nolte throwing down a tomahawk dunk. This court was the Cavaliers’ playground, and Virginia fans reveled in their team’s dominating performance.
Fans gleefully chanted the names of Rachel Nichols and Reggie Miller until the broadcasters acknowledged them. They chanted “Sweet 16” and “Evan Nolte” after his massive dunk.
But the loudest and most enthusiastic chant was for Tony Bennett, the man who guided the program back to the promised land after such a long exile. Bennett almost let a grin slip out, but somehow maintained his focus during the final minute of the game.
In a sense, it was symbolic of the team’s success this season. While Virginia fans celebrate each milestone, Bennett and his team remain ever-focused on the task at hand, vowing to celebrate after the season ends.
With respect to the team—I’m sure they want to celebrate their accomplishments—hopefully that end won’t come too soon. Even playing in the Sweet 16 at the Garden against Michigan State, a March Madness darling among pundits and in Vegas, is sweet.
But oh how a win would be so much sweeter.—Zack Bartee