Column: Last year’s upset now part of Virginia’s Final Four redemption story

Last year, Virginia was the victim of the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history when they became the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose a first-round game to a No. 16 seed, UMBC.

What a difference a year makes.

Saturday, 379 days after losing to UMBC, Virginia defeated Purdue 80-75 in an overtime epic to win the tournament’s South Regional and advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.

While the memory of the UMBC defeat will still be an unpleasant one for coach Tony Bennett, his Cavaliers and their fans, Saturday’s victory changes the narrative of that loss. In a bubble, the loss was the worst thing that could have happened to a college basketball team. But in the bigger picture, the loss becomes the beginning of one of the great redemption stories ever seen in sports.

This is not to suggest that Virginia’s loss last year was a “good thing” — to do so would disrespect both the accomplishment of UMBC and the Virginia seniors from last year who experienced that heartbreak and haven’t experienced this year’s Final Four run.

Virginia players celebrate after advancing to the Final Four on Saturday. (Photo: Virginia Athletics)

But now, a year and a program-record 33 wins later, coach Tony Bennett and his team can begin the story of this year’s success with that loss and recall how they overcame the humiliation and noise that came from it, only to come back better and reach the Final Four the following March.

A year after going to his knees in despair as time expired against UMBC, senior Kyle Guy finished the win over the Boilermakers on his knees as well — but this time he was overcome with jubilation.

“I was definitely flashing back to when I was on my knees last year, and I did it again,” Guy said. “And that was just, you know, just overflowing with joy. So happy for my teammates and my coaches and for myself to be able to break through in the way that we did this year. Not only did we silence (Bennett’s) critics, we silenced our own and we’re so grateful for our fans that traveled and have always believed in us.”

Bennett’s Virginia team reaching the Final Four — on the 10th anniversary of his hiring, no less — also helps change the overall narrative around the program. Even before last year’s upset loss, many saw the Cavaliers as a team that played great in the regular season but couldn’t win in the NCAA Tournament.

“There were a lot of people that didn’t think we would make it this far in the tournament,” sophomore Jay Huff said. “After last year, a lot of people were thinking similar would happen, there would be an early exit in the tournament. Obviously, we don’t go out just to prove people wrong, but it is fun knowing they’ll have to eat their words a little bit.”

That perception wasn’t completely unfounded. Since Virginia’s run of success began in the 2013-14 season, the team lost in the Sweet 16 in 2014 and the second round in 2015 after a pair of first-place finishes in the ACC. In 2016 the Cavaliers blew a double-digit lead in the final minutes of their Elite Eight game against No. 10-seed Syracuse, before a 2017 second-round loss to Florida.

Every loss except the one to Florida came as the higher seed (either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in each case), and against the Gators the Cavaliers could only muster 39 points.

“You think of all the guys that came before us and just the teams that were so close and showed you just how difficult it is to get to the Final Four,” Jerome said after Saturday’s game. “And how many times Coach Bennett has been a 1-seed or a 2-seed and has had so much regular season success. To be the team that gets him to the Final Four, I think that’s what means the most.”

Then came UMBC. Virginia — a program known more than anything else for a staunch defense — allowed 53 second-half points in a 20-point loss to the Retreivers. They weren’t just the first No. 1-seed to lose to a No. 16; they were routed. The narrative about postseason struggles intensified exponentially.

After that loss Bennett told his team they had to own it. He said they had no choice but for that loss to be a part of their legacy — it was going to be in the record books no matter how much the team disliked it — and that the best way to respond would be to come back and add a successful 2018-19 campaign to that legacy.

And did they ever add to that legacy. This group of Cavaliers — the upperclassman leaders Guy and Ty Jerome, the star forward De’Andre Hunter, the sixth-man-turned-postseason-starter Mamadi Diakite, the big New Zealander Jack Salt, the small but quick Kihei Clark and a solid-though-seldom-used group of reserves — will now become the Virginia players in 35 years to play in the Final Four, and could become the first Cavaliers to win a national championship.

“The quote we use is ‘If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.’” Bennett said. “I didn’t know if that meant we’d get to a Final Four … I just knew that would deepen us in ways on the court, off the court and what we believe and mark us for the right stuff. And that, I think, is what took place.”

After failing to execute in their previous tournament failures, the Cavaliers made the big plays on Saturday night. Guy made five second-half threes en route to a 25-point night, Hunter hit the layup with 28 seconds left in overtime that gave the Cavaliers the lead for good and Clark hit the free throws in the final seconds to ice it.

And then there was the biggest play in the game, in the tournament and in Virginia basketball history: Trailing by two in the final seconds, Diakite tipped the rebound of a missed Jerome free throw out past half court, Clark ran it down and frantically passed the ball back to Diakite, who threw up a 15-foot prayer — one which was nothing but net and sent the game to overtime, where Virginia eventually won.

These clutch plays helped to ultimately change the outcome of the game and perhaps the tournament. They helped change the perception of an entire program.

And they helped change this group of Cavaliers’ tournament legacy, from that of the event’s most notable losers to that of Final Four-bound redeemed regional champions.

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