Four minutes to play and the game was tied at 60. A sea of orange yelled from the sidelines as the time continued to whittle down. Three and a half minutes gone—still 60.
Two free throws at the 34-second mark and suddenly they’re up by two.
Up by two? The sixth seed? The team that went 15-11?
It was 1976, and the Virginia Cavaliers were about to beat No. 1 seed North Carolina for their first ACC championship, after upsetting No. 3 North Carolina State and No. 2 Maryland.
“We were 0-6 against those teams,” then-head coach Terry Holland said when he was honored at John Paul Jones Arena September 23, on the 40th anniversary of that win, “but with every one of those teams we had a game that went down to the wire. …We knew we could play with them.”
Wally Walker was the leading man for the ’76
Cavaliers, taking home MVP honors at the tournament and leading the Hoos with 21 points in the championship game.
“Just to see them,” Walker says, smiling as he recalls Virginia’s fans. “I mean tears, and people weeping.”
Walker laughs. “But I mean, we were too.”
That second ACC championship would evade Virginia for Holland’s next 14 years. In fact, it would be almost four decades before Tony Bennett’s 2014 dream team would recapture the title.
But 1981 was also a standout year as UVA went undefeated at home. It was the year Holland took his team to the program’s first Final Four.
And it was the year of Ralph Sampson.
Sampson, the 7’4” center for Virginia and three-time College Player of the Year, was untouchable. The Cavaliers went 27-2 that regular season, falling only to North Carolina and Maryland.
No one knew that in 33 years Bennett’s squad would begin duplicating the 1981 team’s accomplishments, logging back-to-back 30-win seasons in 2014 and 2015, and enjoying an undefeated season at home in 2016.
Asked how the two teams compare, Sampson’s answer is quick: “We would have killed them.”
He laughs. “It also starts with the coach, and I think that the coach that they have here in Tony Bennett is phenomenal. They should keep him here forever if they can.”
Take a step back to Virginia’s second Final Four appearance in 1984. The miracle run. The year that Holland’s team went 21-12 in the regular season and wound up losing to Houston in overtime in the Final Four.
For players such as Rick Carlisle, some moments remain painted vividly in memory, like the team’s overtime win against Arkansas that pushed them into the Sweet 16.
“It was a play designed for Othell Wilson,” Carlisle remembers of the final shot. “He went up for the shot and Albert Robinson…got a piece of the shot. It deflected into my hands, and I just grabbed it and let it go, and it went in.”
Moments like these don’t just happen. Standout years like 1976, 1981 and 1984 were the hard work of a coach and a lot of good players—and many will tell you they see aspects of Holland in Bennett.
“He played for his dad, so I got to see his dad coach,” Holland says of Bennett, “and I think they play a lot like we did. I think he’s taken the stuff that his dad did and added on to it and made good use of the caliber that he has on hand.”
Carlisle goes further, saying the coaches share humility, unselfishness and toughness; he believes Holland set the stage for Bennett.
“Without Terry Holland, there wouldn’t be a Tony Bennett.”