We are the champions: How UVA men’s basketball’s shining moment lit up Charlottesville

Cavs guard Kyle Guy celebrates as the buzzer sounded on Virginia’s win during the NCAA Championship Game on April 8, 2019, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Jerry Holt/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS via ZUMA Wire Cavs guard Kyle Guy celebrates as the buzzer sounded on Virginia’s win during the NCAA Championship Game on April 8, 2019, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Jerry Holt/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS via ZUMA Wire
By Susan Sorensen

Three-hundred and eighty-nine days is a long time. For the UVA men’s basketball team, it was an eternity. As the saying goes, though, good things come to those who wait. And the Virginia faithful who celebrated the team’s first-ever national championship on April 8—a little more than a year after the Cavs were the only No. 1 seed in the history of the NCAA tournament to lose to a No. 16 seed (by 20 points!)—can certainly attest to that. But good doesn’t begin to describe it.

The Hoos’ national title win was the best—and the way they did it was nothing short of miraculous. And for a city that continues to grapple with the aftermath of 2017’s Summer of Hate, a miracle was long overdue. That it came courtesy of a college basketball team struggling to conquer its own demons made it even sweeter. As City Councilor Wes Bellamy put it: “We [both] took a blow, but we got up and pushed harder, and we’re better because of it.”

UVA coach Tony Bennett intently watches the big game. He later told his team to remain “humble” and “thankful” in victory. Photo Matt Riley/UVA Athletics

In the locker room after winning the national championship, Cavalier guard Ty Jerome told Sports Illustrated that the Hoos “always believe in each other. If we have a fighting chance, we’re going to keep trying…”

Charlottesville also keeps trying. And although we have a long way to go before achieving our own shining moment, we too are working on our redemption story.

Former city resident Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate, said the summer of 2017 was the “start of something. It was the start of peeling off the scales about what a seemingly perfect, sleepy Southern college town had obscured; it was the start of a faith-led resistance that lights up the dark a year later.”

Basketball exists on a different plane—it’s just a game, after all—but Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett knows a thing or two about faith in a higher power and in one another. And he certainly understands what it means to light up the dark a year later.

Going into this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, everyone knew Bennett’s 29-3 Cavs were a solid team (they were once again a No. 1 seed) that should have easily defeated No. 16 Gardner-Webb in the first round. But at halftime, Virginia was down by 14 points, and visions of 2018 danced in our heads.

“I remember thinking, ‘We can’t go through this again,’” Bennett said. Turns out they didn’t, rallying to win 71-56.

De’Andre Hunter scored a career-high 27 points against Texas Tech in the championship game. Photo Matt Riley/UVA Athletics

Two days later, UVA beat Oklahoma in the second round, followed by a much closer victory over Oregon in the Sweet 16. And that’s when the fun really began.

The Elite Eight game, a thriller in Louisville against Purdue, can be summed up like this: The pass (Kihei Clark). The buzzer-beating shot (Mamadi Diakite). The overtime win. The team’s first trip to the Final Four in 35 years.

After cutting down the nets (we won’t soon forget the usually reserved Bennett making the final snip, twirling the net in the air, raising both hands toward the rafters, and letting loose with a yell of pure euphoria), the Cavs returned to Charlottesville with their South Regional trophy. A week later, they were in Minneapolis to face Auburn in another nail-biter: With less than a second to play and trailing by two, a rock-steady Kyle Guy sank three clutch free throws to put Virginia in the championship game against Texas Tech.   

Like everything for this team, a national title wouldn’t come easily. After watching a 10-point lead slip away, the Cavaliers were behind by three with 22 seconds remaining as Jerome dribbled toward the basket. Instead of going for the obvious two and a quick foul, he made a perfect pass to De’Andre Hunter, who nailed a three-pointer with 12 seconds on the clock. Overtime ensued, and the Hoos never looked back. They beat the Red Raiders 85-77.

The Cavaliers’ win was about much more than three-pointers and confetti and trophies and T-shirts, though. Once again, thousands took to the streets of our no-longer-sleepy Southern college town. But unlike 2017, there weren’t any torch-toting mobs or guns or hate symbols, only an ebullient sea of orange and blue. April 8, 2019, was a joyful celebration, filled with hugs and laughter and chants of “U-V-A! U-V-A!”

The Hoos huddle up during a big moment in the championship game. Photo Matt Riley/UVA Athletics

Our Comeback Cavs got their fairy-tale finish, and we all revelled in it. Washington Post columnist John Feinstein called Virginia’s championship “something straight out of a Disney movie—except if you attempted to sell the story-
line to Disney, you would probably get laughed out of the pitch meeting.” Nobody was laughing at the Hoos this year. They are the very best of 2019.

Less than two months after the Virginia men’s basketball team beat Texas Tech, UVA fans celebrated another national championship when the men’s lacrosse team shellacked Yale, the 2018 champs, on May 27. It was the team’s sixth national title.

Posted In:     2019 Best of C-VILLE Editor’s Pick

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