Column: Foltynewicz and Duvall, in minors this summer, save Braves postseason in October

During the dog days of summer, Mike Foltynewicz woke up 43 mornings as a minor leaguer, as recently as Aug. 5. Adam Duvall spent 136 days in the minors, as recently as Sept. 5.

But come October, on a hot Georgia night that felt like those same dog days of summer, Mike Foltynewicz and Adam Duvall may have saved the Atlanta Braves’ postseason.

The pair of former All-Stars played to their full capability Friday night, leading the Braves to a crucial 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals to even the NL Division Series at one game each.

Foltynewicz pitched seven shutout innings, allowing three hits. When Duvall pinch-hit for Foltynewicz in the bottom of the seventh, he hit a two-run home run to stretch a 1-0 lead to 3-0, giving the Braves some huge insurance runs.

With the win, the Braves avoided the ominous fate of a 2-0 series deficit in the best-of-5 series ahead of the next two games in St. Louis.

Foltynewicz entered the season as the Braves’ top starting pitcher, but his season was delayed by injury, then plagued by ineffectiveness. On June 22, with a 6.37 ERA after 11 starts, he was optioned to AAA Gwinnett less than a year removed from his 2018 All-Star appearance.

The right-hander worked on both the execution of his pitches and the harnessing of his emotions, both of which were part of the early-season problems, and on Aug. 5 he was recalled to the major leagues after a successful run of starts.

In the 10 starts since his recall, Foltynewicz regained his 2018 form, pitching to a 2.65 ERA; the Braves won each of the first nine of those starts.

In Friday’s game, he made arguably the best start of his career, becoming the first Braves starter to throw seven or more shutout innings in a playoff game since Tom Glavine in the 2001 NLDS. In doing so, he outdueled the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty, the NL Pitcher of the Month in both August and September, all on the heels of a poor performance in last year’s playoff-series loss to the Dodgers.

“(It’s) pretty special,” Foltynewicz said. “(I) keep talking about it, the kind of year I had, just for the Braves to have trust in me. And I kind of proved what I went down to work on that I’m still the pitcher that I was last year.”

Foltynewicz was so strong that some fans at SunTrust Park booed when Duvall pinch-hit for Foltynewicz in the seventh inning. With two out in the inning, Braves manager Brian Snitker was trying to give his team the best chance to add on some runs, especially considering that Foltynewicz is a light hitter even by a pitcher’s standards. The trade-off was that Foltynewicz was out of the game at 81 pitches.

But Snitker had pushed the right button — Duvall’s home run gave the Braves some much-needed breathing room as the game was turned over to a bullpen which had struggled the night before in Game 1.

Duvall, a 2016 All-Star while with the Cincinnati Reds, had seasons of 33 and 31 home runs in 2016 and 2017, but struggled mightily at the plate after being traded to Atlanta in mid-2018. He hit .132 with no home runs in 53 at-bats, and was left off last year’s playoff roster.

Entering 2019, the Braves were hopeful that Duvall could regain his own form, but simply didn’t have a roster spot for him out of spring training. So he began his age-30 season at Gwinnett, waiting for an opportunity, and all he did was hit: 32 home runs and 93 RBIs in 101 games.

That opportunity did eventually open when the Braves experienced some injuries, and Duvall hit five home runs in the first six games after he was promoted back to the big leagues. He totaled 15 extra-base hits in 41 games, and this time around earned a playoff-roster spot as a right-handed-hitting reserve.

“This guy’s a former All-Star, he’s getting Gold Glove votes … last year didn’t go the way he wanted it to,” Snitker said. “Out of Spring Training, we optioned him down and he went down and hit I don’t know how many homers, and stayed the course and worked. I have so much respect for a guy like that.”

Duvall earned a hit and a walk in Game 1, then Friday did what he does best: hit a Flaherty fastball 423 feet to center field, landing in a raucous red-draped crowd.

After Foltynewicz went deep on the mound and Duvall went deep at the plate, the last six outs were earned by pitchers with noteworthy routes to Game 2 in their own right — Max Fried won 17 games as a starter, second most in the NL, but is being utilized as a reliever in the postseason; Mark Melancon was 12-for-12 in saves in the regular season but blew the save in Game 1, only to find redemption in Game 2 — and the Braves had evened the series.

Who could’ve known, in the 100-degree heat of Lawrenceville, Ga. during some mundane Gwinnett Stripers game in July, that the two most integral players in the Braves’ first 2019 playoff win would come from that team and not the more acclaimed one 30 miles away in Atlanta?

As disappointing as Game 1 was for the Braves — and as much as they could be leading the series 2-0 — Friday’s must-win was won and the team’s postseason aspirations were, at least for now, saved.

All because a couple of guys who were playing in front of a couple thousand people in July got the job done in October on the postseason’s grand stage.

Column: The checkered flag at the end of the rainbow

Chase Elliott’s win in Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was incredible for anyone watching, as the 23-year-old from Georgia overcame a mid-race accident, came back through the field to take the lead with six laps to go and claimed his sixth career NASCAR Cup Series victory, then did a burnout at the very spot he had hit the wall an hour earlier.

But for me, this win had even more meaning. It was a checkered flag at the end of a rainbow.

But to understand what made Sunday afternoon special for me, you must first understand the road to get there.

From an early age, my aunt Terri taught me that if someone asked “who’s the best driver?” I was to answer with the name Jeff Gordon. That sparked an interest in NASCAR, and by Gordon’s championship season of 2001 I had joined her as a diehard fan.

She and I attended a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway eight times between 2002-12, witnessing 2,219 laps of racing, with everything from Mark Martin winning a million-dollar bonus at our first race, to Dale Earnhardt Jr. running out of gas leading on the final lap, to the time we thought we were on Noah’s ark through a day and a half of rain ending in David Reutimann’s first career win.

After Jeff Gordon retired (we watched the final race of his last full-time season together at a race-viewing party at the NASCAR Hall of Fame), we both became Chase Elliott fans the following year when the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott took over the drivers seat of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

In September 2016, two-thirds of the way through Elliott’s rookie season, Terri died unexpectedly.

In the three years since, I had not been to Charlotte Motor Speedway until Sunday. I wasn’t avoiding the track, but simply never made it to a race there, between being busier than ever and, for a time, further away from Charlotte than ever, and attending races at other tracks.

She was on my mind Sunday — when we got to our seats, which weren’t too far away from where we sat during that rainy Coca-Cola 600; during the invocation and national anthem; when Gordon made a cameo on the track’s massive video screen.

As the race unfolded, by the middle of Stage 2 it was clear Elliott had the best car on the racetrack, and he led 28 laps over the middle portion of the race and won the stage. At some point I gave a thought to how personally meaningful an Elliott win could be.

But on a restart on lap 65 of the 109-lap event, Elliott locked up the brakes and his car wouldn’t turn, resulting in him hitting the tire barrier where the drivers turn off from the traditional oval into the infield portion of the “roval” track.

Since he drove the car back to pit road, I figured he would be able to continue and would not be out of the race, but I also assumed his chance to win was gone. The car’s hood appeared to be damaged, and I questioned if there could be damage inside the hood as well.

But the damage was minimal, and Elliott drove his way from around 30th back towards the front, even briefly leading again at lap 78 during a cycle of green-flag pit stops. With his driving through the field and the help of some timely cautions, Elliott was up to third by the final restart.

Within one lap after the final restart, Elliott had taken the lead again — clearing Kevin Harvick right in front of me in the frontstretch chicane.

Over the final laps, as Elliott pulled away from second-place Alex Bowman, I began to reflect, all while nervously hoping the race would stay green.

I thought about the times spent with Terri at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I thought about the fact that the driver I was pulling for, be it Gordon or Elliott, had never won a race I attended.

I thought about the fact that she would have been 60 two days later — today.

And then, in the midst of all of these thoughts, just as Elliott was coming to the white flag to signify the final lap, a rainbow appeared over the racetrack.

Rainbows are often used in a symbolic way, and in this case felt like further confirmation that what was happening on the track simply felt meant to be.

Furthermore, the symbolism of a rainbow specifically connects back to Terri and racing: Jeff Gordon’s Dupont-sponsored car was, for many years, painted with a rainbow, a scheme that was so iconic his pit crew became known as the Rainbow Warriors.

Chase Elliott navigated the 17 turns of the final lap under that rainbow, and at the end of that 109th lap of the afternoon found his pot of gold in the form of a checkered flag.

Chase Elliott on the final lap of Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Take note of the rainbow in the upper left, which the photo does not do justice. (Photo: Chris Stiles)

And as Elliott crossed that finish line, I lifted my hands up in celebration but also briefly glanced to the heavens in reflection. My friend Jackson, who I was attending the race with, gave me a high-five. After standing for the closing laps, I sat down to take a deep breath, and simply took in the moment.

I don’t mean to elevate my circumstances over those of anyone else — during the race I even had the thought that if another driver won it would be just as meaningful to one of their fans — but some things just feel meant to be.

I know it was just a race, and not one that I was a participant in. But sometimes sports outcomes can be more meaningful because of the underlying circumstances.

Now, a couple of days later, I’m grateful. Grateful for the experience, for the chance to reflect and to remember a special person in my life.

I went to a NASCAR race Sunday. I never expected to find a personal pot of gold.

Column: The Dodgers can make a run at the Braves’ record division streak

From 1991-2005, the Atlanta Braves achieved an unprecedented level of regular-season success, winning division titles in 14 consecutive seasons — a record across all of professional sports.

It’s one of those sports records that many people say will never be broken.

But after clinching the National League West title on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Dodgers are halfway to the Braves’ mark with seven straight division championships, and have a chance to make a run at matching or even surpassing the record.

The sheer thought of winning 14 straight division titles is incredible — imagine the Minnesota Twins, a potential division winner this year for the first time since 2010, winning the AL Central every year until 2032. That’s what makes the Braves run so remarkable, and what makes the Dodgers’ chance at a parallel run impressive.

When the Dodgers won the NL West in 2013, they did not have a club with the appearance of a long-term run of success, but instead a very veteran-laden club. Six of the team’s eight position-player regulars that year were 31 or older, including Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford (and Hanley Ramirez was 29), with Yasiel Puig serving as the one young gun in the daily lineup.

The pitching staff wasn’t quite as old, led by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenley Jansen, but among the contributors were Ricky Nolasco, Chris Capuano, J.P. Howell and Brian Wilson, all at or near the end of their respective careers.

In the years since, there’s been plenty of turnover — Kershaw, Ryu and Jansen are the only three players to play on all seven division-winning teams — but they’ve continued to win, and in almost every year of the streak have won comfortably.

That’s because the franchise has been able to replenish the roster without ever having to rebuild — and remarkably, turning over nearly the entire roster without ever finishing out of first. A big reason that’s been done is the players they’ve drafted and developed to become major-league stars.

Current Dodgers Walker Buehler, Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and potential NL MVP Cody Bellinger have become key pieces after coming up through the Dodgers farm system. Others, like Puig and Dee Gordon, were key contributors to multiple division titles before being dealt away.

Some of the Dodger players who weren’t drafted by the team have also been a key to the team’s success, including several players who they found as diamonds in the rough: Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Andrew Toles were each released by their previous organizations, while Chris Taylor was part of a trade that seemed inconsequential at the time.

The result today is a well-rounded team who is built to continue winning in the coming years. Nearly all of the team’s offensive contributors are 29 and younger, and despite age starting to become a factor for the pitching staff the rotation is as strong as ever, including Ryu, in the midst of a career year at age 32. The bullpen is far from the team’s strength, but between the organization’s deep pockets and its depth of minor-league prospects, that problem may fix itself moving into next year as they go for division title No. 8.

The Dodgers are halfway to the Braves’ thought-to-be-unattainable record, and they’re better built for the future than they were at the beginning of the streak. And this is all while each of the other NL West teams appears to lack the strength to make a run at them, at least in the immediate future.

So, seven years from now, it’s quite feasible that Bobby Cox’s Braves could have some company.

Column: From one home to another

Nine months ago, I packed up and left Clayton, Ga. to move back home.

This week, I packed up as I prepare to leave Asheboro, N.C. to move back home.

Before I explain, let me avoid what we in the business call “burying the lead” – I’m excited to announce that I will be starting a sportswriting job at The Robesonian in Lumberton, N.C. on Monday.

Now, about the whole “move back home” thing…

Two areas have always been home to me, as I’ve spent large portions of my life living in both of them: the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina and the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.

I lived in Kernersville, N.C. from birth until I was 14, and lived in Mullins, S.C. from then until I got my first job out of college. Granted, for four of those years I was in Anderson, S.C. eight months a year (and it’s a home to me as well), but Mullins was still my home base.

So it was truthful when, in November of last year, I said I was moving close to home when I left my job at The Clayton Tribune for another at The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro N.C.

Now, after a roller-coaster nine months in Asheboro, I’m moving back close to home – my other home – as I join the excellent staff at The Robesonian and relocate to Lumberton, just across the state line from Mullins.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect in November I would be changing jobs and locations again so soon, but circumstances more or less made that decision for me.

In May I was laid off from The Courier-Tribune as part of a wave of company-wide layoffs within parent company GateHouse Media. I was one of the approximately 200 journalists affected nationwide. I woke up one day with a position in the company and by the end of the day that position had simply vanished.

The move from Clayton to Asheboro had felt perfect. I was close to my original Triad home and, more importantly, to my grandmother and other extended family. I had the opportunity to cover some big events with The Courier-Tribune, including the ACC Tournament in Charlotte and several University of North Carolina events in Chapel Hill.

That perfection was over quickly – the NBA season that started before I moved to Asheboro was still in progress when I was laid off – and I wondered what was next.

Fortunately, an opportunity at The Robesonian opened, things moved quickly – in part due to a connection to sports editor Jonathan Bym through us meeting at UNC games – and here I am announcing my latest career move.

This job will be very similar to the one in Asheboro, as I’ll be covering high school and college sports at a newspaper that publishes five days a week (the only difference in that sentence would be that Asheboro publishes six days a week).

The Triad will always be a home to me. But now I’m excited to be close to family and friends as I start the next chapter and “move home” yet again.

Column: Westwood’s last good chance?

For much of his career, Lee Westwood was known as the current “best player to never win a major,” and the Englishman is, quite frankly, one of the best golfers of all-time to never win a major championship.

This week, Westwood is squarely in contention at the 148th Open Championship, sitting a shot back of co-leaders Shane Lowry and J.B. Holmes at the event’s halfway mark.

Westwood is no stranger to the position he’s in, but him and those watching alike have to be wondering if this Open is the last good chance that he will have to shred the dreaded “never won a major” label.

When the championship ends Sunday, Westwood will be 46 years, 2 months and 27 days old. A victory would make him the third-oldest player to win a major, four days older than Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters and 11 days younger than the second-oldest, Old Tom Morris in the 1867 Open Championship.

Context would make a win even more historic. No player has ever reached Westwood’s age before winning their first major championship. Jerry Barber, who won the 1961 PGA Championship at age 44, is the oldest first-time major champion.

But what Westwood lacks in youth, he makes up for in experience. He has 24 European Tour wins (eighth-most all-time) and has been a part of seven victorious Ryder Cup teams in his 10 appearances. And while he hasn’t won a major, it isn’t because of a lack of chances over his career.

Westwood has finished in the top five in The Open four times, in addition to three times each at the Masters and U.S. Open and once in the PGA Championship. He has 18 top 10 finishes in majors spanning from 1997-2016, including two in each year from 2009-13.

But Westwood’s form over the last few years hasn’t matched that of his prime. Since a tie for second at the 2016 Masters, Westwood hasn’t finished better than 18th in a major.

After spending most of his career ranked in the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings, he’s now ranked 78th and has only qualified for three of the last eight majors — in addition to this week, he had a 61st-place finish in last year’s Open and a missed cut at May’s PGA Championship.

Missed cuts this week by contemporaries such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington also serve as a reminder that the golfers of Westwood’s generation are no longer able to contend week in and week out.

But one of those peers, Woods, has won a major this year, proving that it can still be done by someone in their mid-40s (and to say Tiger had also been through a slump before his win would be a huge understatement).

Westwood enters the weekend with more major-championship experience than anyone else in contention, although he’ll have to beat some big names if he wants to lift the Claret Jug on Sunday. Behind Lowry and Holmes, Tommy Fleetwood is tied with Westwood one shot back, ahead of a list of contenders that also includes Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth, all within three strokes or less. Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson are among those further back that could still have a chance with a good weekend.

Surely he feels pressure — he has to know this could potentially be his last good chance at the one thing in professional golf that’s eluded him — but perhaps he can continue his solid play and earn a storybook triumph in his nation’s championship.

Local favorite?

Another storybook ending could take place if Lowry can turn the 36-hole co-lead into his first major championship.

This Open at Royal Portrush is the first contested in Northern Ireland since 1961. But while Northern Ireland had three players in the field, only one made the cut, and Portrush native Graeme McDowell is likely out of contention nine shots back.

The other Northern Irishman each had a memorable first two days — Darren Clarke hit the tournament’s opening shot, birdied the first hole and led early Thursday morning, while Rory McIlroy made a stirring run at the cut line late Friday, coming back from a first-round 79 only to fall one shot short — but will not be around for the weekend.

Who will the locals root for with no one from Northern Ireland in contention? Enter Lowry.

The 32-year-old Irishman, from about 120 miles south of Portrush, not only joins McDowell as the only two players from the island of Ireland to make the cut, but will be the local favorite for the fans at Royal Portrush this weekend.

While Ireland and Northern Ireland have had a tumultuous relationship over the course of history, fans fully supported Lowry over the first two days around the Royal Portrush links. Relations have softened between the two nations in recent decades, and many Irish fans may have crossed the border (about 55 miles away) to attend The Open at Royal Portrush this week.

Other fan-favorites this weekend will be Brits Westwood, Fleetwood and Rose and the always-popular Spieth and Kuchar. But Lowry is in better position than any of those names entering the third round, and may have equal or better support too.

Column: Buckner should be remembered for more than one play

When the name Bill Buckner is mentioned in any game of word association, where participants say the first thing that comes to their mind, one thing immediately comes to mind in Boston, New York and, frankly, worldwide.

Bill Buckner’s career had progressed solidly and steadily before one certain play in the penultimate game of his 18th MLB season, and continued for four more years before he retired. But he’s most remembered for what happened on the final pitch of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

Buckner died Monday at age 69 after battling Lewy body dementia, 33 years after that fateful play.

To the outsider or even the casual fan, Buckner’s career was defined by one trickling ground ball on Oct. 25, 1986 that somehow got through his 36-year-old legs, allowed Ray Knight to score the game-winning run for the New York Mets and is perceived to have extended the Boston Red Sox World Series drought, which dated back to 1918 and eventually ended in 2004.

But Buckner was so much more than “The Buckner Boot”; anyone who played 22 seasons would have more depth to their career than the three seconds it took for a baseball to travel from Mookie Wilson’s bat to between Buckner’s legs.

“His life was defined by perseverance, resilience and an insatiable will to win,” Red Sox owner John Henry said in a statement Monday. “Those are the traits for which he will be most remembered.”

Buckner wasn’t a Hall of Fame-caliber player — only 2.1 percent of the electors voted for Buckner in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot — but he was what I like to call a “Hall of Very Good” player. Anyone who sticks around the big leagues for 22 years does so because they’ve proven to be a noteworthy player.

Buckner earned 2,715 hits, hitting for a .289 lifetime average in a career that touched four different decades. He was a true “professional hitter” who only struck out 453 times in his entire career, and never more than twice in a single game.

He hit over .300 in seven seasons, including a .324 season in 1980 that won him the National League batting title while with the Chicago Cubs.

He was only an All-Star once, in 1981, but twice finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, in 1981 and 1982.

Buckner is mostly remembered for his time with the Red Sox — that’s where the error occurred, after all — but he had a pair of strong eight-year stints with NL clubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cubs.

With the Dodgers, he was part of the 1974 team that won the NL pennant and lost the World Series to the Oakland Athletics. With the Cubs, he was part of the 1984 NL East-championship team that ended a 39-year playoff drought, though he was traded away at midseason.

While known for the error in the 1986 World Series, he was actually part of another of the most historic and frequently-replayed moments in baseball history, though as more of a footnote. When Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run to top Babe Ruth’s all-time record, Buckner was the left fielder who tried to climb the fence in an attempt to make a play on the ball as it sailed over his head and into the Braves bullpen.

When Buckner participated in the 1986 World Series, he had made 8,996 major-league plate appearances (on his way to 10,037). His experience at age 36 was valuable to the Red Sox, and he hit third in their lineup, but his ankles were showing their age and Dave Stapleton was often used as a defensive replacement at first base in the late innings when the Red Sox led.

In Game 6, they took a 5-3 lead in the 10th inning after Dave Henderson homered and were three outs away from their first championship in 68 years. Manager John McNamara left Buckner in the game.

After Calvin Schiraldi got the first two outs he allowed three straight singles to the never-say-die Mets. Bob Stanley replaced Schiraldi and — in an important detail that’s oft-forgotten in the narrative blaming Buckner for the Red Sox’ loss — allowed Kevin Mitchell to score the tying run on a wild pitch earlier in Wilson’s at-bat.

The Buckner play became the enduring memory of Game 6 because it ended the game and forced a Game 7, one which the Red Sox lost despite two hits and a run by Buckner.

But three things should be remembered: First, if Schiraldi and/or Stanley did their job more efficiently the Buckner play would have never existed because the Wilson at-bat would have never happened. Second, if the Red Sox don’t also blow the lead two nights later in Game 7, Buckner’s error would be a moot point because the Red Sox would have still achieved their goal of winning the World Series.

And third, Buckner’s career was far more than one game. He played in 2,539 other major-league games (including postseason) and was an impactful player.

Unfortunately, those things were largely forgotten over the years in much of the discussion about the ’86 Series, among fans and the media alike — especially before the Red Sox’ 2004 championship season.

Buckner was released by the Red Sox in mid-1987 but came back to the team in 1990, his final season.

Over the last four years of his playing career, Buckner was heckled both in Boston and around the rest of the league, both while still on the Red Sox and in short stints with the California Angels and Kansas City Royals. Even after his retirement, Buckner’s error never stopped getting media attention — even to this day, in some ways — though it subsided as the Red Sox began winning championships; they’ve now won four in the last 15 years.

Buckner, who grew up in California, moved to Idaho after his playing career, in part to escape the constant reminders of that one ill-fated play. For several years, he declined invitations to appear at Fenway Park in Boston, but he accepted the Red Sox’ invitation to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day 2008 as part of the team’s celebration of their 2007 championship.

“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through,” Buckner said that day. “So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Buckner even appeared at autograph-signing events with Wilson, who commented on Buckner’s death in a statement Monday.

“We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years,” Wilson said. “I felt badly for some of the things he went through. Bill was a great, great baseball player whose legacy should not be defined by one play.”

But even in his death, Buckner’s career still is being most remembered for one error. Every story on Buckner Monday mentioned the error or included a clip of the play, while far less mentioned his 1,208 RBIs. Some of the famous photographs of his dejected stare in reaction to the play have topped obituaries rather than images from any of his 718 extra-base hits.

The word association with Buckner’s name remains “error,” even as “good player” and “professional hitter” would a more appropriate reflection as his life is remembered in the coming days.

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.