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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Column: 16-seeds more confident after one of their peers pulled it off

Think back to when you were growing up and faced the daunting task of doing something new, scary and daring.

If you’re like me, you may have been more likely to feel comfortable enough to go for it if you saw one of your peers finish the task first — whether it was riding a bicycle without training wheels, diving into the deep end of the pool or riding on the zip line at summer camp.

For 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona as they entered the 2019 NCAA Tournament, last year’s UMBC team may very well have been that peer.

Fifty-two weeks ago the Retrievers shocked the world by becoming the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the tournament’s first round when they beat Virginia 74-54, a feat previously thought by some to be impossible.

While none of this year’s 16-seeds were able to repeat the feat, Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona each played their top-seeded opponent extremely well for the first half of their games against Virginia, Duke and North Carolina and avoided being thought of as just an also-ran when fans and pundits recapped the first round outcomes. (Sorry, Fairleigh Dickinson, this column isn’t about you.)

Sure, the Cavaliers, Blue Devils and Tar Heels posted dominant second halves to win and advance (Virginia beat Gardner-Webb 73-58; Duke topped North Dakota State 85-62; North Carolina defeated Iona 88-73). It should be expected that this would happen in these games considering the talent gap between these No. 1 seeds — by definition the best teams in the country — and their 16th-seeded counterparts. The ability of great coaches to make halftime adjustments — and UVA’s Tony Bennett, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams all fit that description — is also a factor in the games turning back towards the favorites, even after two of these three No. 1 seeds trailed at halftime and the other was up by just four points.

But as Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona each played on Friday there was a sense that the teams had a new sense of confidence never seen before in 16-seeds, knowing now that beating a No. 1 seed was not just something that hypothetically could happen, but something that has happened.

(Photo: Gardner-Webb Athletics)

It started in mid-afternoon as Gardner-Webb held a 28-14 lead on Virginia — the very team that lost to UMBC last year in the tournament’s ultimate upset — before the Runnin’ Bulldogs led 36-30 at halftime. Surely thoughts of last year’s game and all the noise surrounding it since had to creep into the heads of the Cavaliers, though Bennett’s club responded with their typical stanch defense, holding Gardner-Webb to 20 second-half points.

North Dakota State led 12-5 early and was tied with Duke as late as the 2:13 mark of the first half before trailing 31-27 at the break. Duke — the No. 1 overall seed and the tournament’s largest betting favorite in four years — used a 33-10 run to start the second half and put the game out of the Bison’s reach, scoring 54 second-half points en route to the second round.

Iona hit 10 threes in the first half to take a 38-33 halftime lead over North Carolina. The Tar Heels outrebounded the Gaels 52-26 for the game and Iona made just five of 20 threes in the second half, instigating a 30-9 UNC run that allowed them to cruise to the win.

While each of these three No. 16 seeds lost in the end, they all have nothing to hang their heads about and can be proud of the way they competed. Each of them took their best shot at an excellent opponent and provided them with a stiff first-round test — something that has often not been the case in past 1-vs-16 matchups, as the average margin of victory by 1-seeds over 16-seeds since 2015 is 26.8 points, with nearly half those games decided by 30-plus points.

While any reasonable pundit won’t expect 16-seed-over-1-seed upsets to become a normal occurrence, this year’s crop of three compelling games and three legitimate upset attempts could be a sign that the days of pushover 16-seeds may be history.

Because while facing a No. 1 seed is a daunting and scary task, they’ve now seen one of their peers finish the job.

Column: Mejia’s return shows how little MLB cares

The phrase “lifetime ban” just sounds harsh. It sounds stern, sounds eternal.

Unless, of course, said ban isn’t actually for a lifetime, but just for three years — less than the normal amount of time needed to earn a college degree.

Jennry Mejia, who was given a lifetime ban from MLB just three years ago, was reinstated last year and Tuesday the Boston Red Sox have signed the right-handed pitcher to a minor-league contract. If Mejia pitches well, there’s a chance he could reach the major leagues again this season.

Mejia, a 29-year-old Dominican, was banned on Feb. 12, 2016 as punishment for his third positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, the typical penalty according to the MLB and MLB Players Association’s Joint Drug Agreement.

Jennry Mejia (Flickr)

Players are allowed to apply for reinstatement after a minimum of two years, subject to the commissioner’s discretion. Commissioner Rob Manfred approved Mejia’s reinstatement for the 2019 season on July 6 of last year.

MLB’s penalties for players who test positive for PEDs are widely considered to be the toughest in sports. But that consideration is based on the lifetime ban for the third offense, not a ban that is only three years in actuality.

The fact MLB would allow Mejia — or any three-time offender — back into their sport is appalling.

This is a man who knowingly took the banned substances stanozolol and Boldenone in an intentional effort to cheat his way to success. All three of his positive tests were within one year; the failed tests were announced April 11 and July 28 of 2015 and Feb. 12, 2016.

Here’s how blatant Mejia’s PED use was: after his 80-game suspension for his first failed test, he only pitched seven games before he was busted a second time. And his third failed drug test, the one resulting in the “lifetime ban,” came before his 162-game suspension for the second had expired.

Why would MLB want this phony back in their game? While Mejia appeared to be a good pitcher in his last full season in 2014, saving 28 games for the Mets with a 3.65 ERA, that success comes with the uncertainty of how much help he had from PEDs.

If MLB were truly serious about keeping their game as clean as possible, they wouldn’t even have read Mejia’s application for reinstatement, much less granted his return to the game.

Instead, the league showed a concerning nonchalance by allowing Mejia to pitch. There’s no good reason MLB should want Mejia playing.

Sure, he’ll be subject to six urine tests and three blood tests per year on top of the league’s random drug tests required of every player.

But the point of the penalties is to serve as a deterrent to people committing the acts in the first place. It’s the same reason those convicted of a crime are sent to prison.

Yet that deterrent is lessened when the penalty on the third offense proves to not be a lifetime ban, but instead a three-year ban. A 25-year-old — like Mejia in 2015 — having their career ended for a third positive test is far more blunt (and appropriate) a penalty than allowing the player to come back at 28, still in their physical prime.

MLB says they’re doing everything they can to keep PEDs out of baseball. But actions speak louder than words.

Column: Tyler Trent won

Tyler Trent, the Purdue superfan whose cancer battle inspired millions, died Tuesday. He was just 20 years old.

It will be said in the coming days that Tyler Trent “lost” his battle with the rare bone cancer osteosarcoma. But that statement utterly misrepresents Trent’s battle, even if it ended in his death.

Tyler Trent won.

tyler-trent
Purdue University superfan Tyler Trent died of cancer on Tuesday. He was 20. (Photo: Purdue Athletics)

Yes, he won spiritually — if you believe what I do and what he did, you understand what I mean by that. But beyond that, physically on this earth, Tyler Trent won by the positive way in which he battled, the faith and hope he showed each day and the inspiration he provided to all who followed his story.

The late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott once said “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live.”

By that criteria, no one won their cancer battle bigger than Tyler Trent.

Trent first fought cancer in 2014, then battled recurrences diagnosed in 2017 and last March. His story was familiar locally, but be became a pseudo-celebrity nationally — possibly the face of the disease in mainstream America — after the Purdue-Ohio State football game on Oct. 20.

ESPN featured Trent’s story on College GameDay that morning, and Trent predicted his Boilermakers would upset Ohio State.

The first miracle came when Trent, who had been so sick earlier in the week his family wasn’t sure he would live more than a few days, became well enough to travel from his Carmel, Indiana home to Purdue’s West Lafayette campus to attend the game.

The second came when Purdue upset the then-No. 2 Buckeyes in a 49-20 blowout. As the Boilermakers team left the field, many players and coach Jeff Brohm spoke to Trent — and some even credited their victory to his inspiration.

“His prediction that Purdue was going to beat Ohio State, as crazy as that may have sounded…I think he got everybody really believing that that could happen,” said New Orleans Saints quarterback and Purdue alum Drew Brees. “It’s amazing just how one person can make that type of impact on, not just a football team, but an entire university and everybody who has any type of affiliation with Purdue. I think that there’s some divine intervention at work here.”

From that point, Trent’s story had national attention and he received visits, letters and social media messages from dozens of current and former athletes and coaches around the country and even President Donald Trump. He made numerous television appearances and was awarded the Disney Spirit Award at ESPN’s College Football Awards show and the Sagamore of the Wabash, Indiana’s highest civilian honor.

He became the honorary team captain for the Purdue football team, lifting the Old Oaken Bucket trophy when the team beat Indiana and, despite his grave condition, traveling to Nashville for the team’s bowl game on Friday. The team’s official Twitter account posted on Tuesday night “Forever our captain” after news of Trent’s death.

Trent’s courage and spirit inspired so many who heard his story, and it’s estimated his story resulted in millions of dollars in donations to cancer research.

Trent, whose career goal was to become a sportswriter, penned a book before his death called “The Upset,” in which he tells the story of his cancer battle, Purdue’s inspired victory over Ohio State, and the future upset he hopes will happen when a cure for cancer is found. The book’s goal is to continue raise even more money for cancer research through its proceeds.

“My drive revolves around the legacy I leave,” Trent said on the book’s website. “The chances of my living to see cancer eradicated, or our finding a cure, are pretty low, but hopefully one hundred years down the line, maybe my legacy will have an impact towards that goal.”

Trent’s perspective changed over the course of his battle, helping lead to his moving final months. According to a column published Tuesday night by Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel, when Trent was diagnosed a second and third time he was determined that, if it was his fate to battle cancer, he would use his battle for good.

“I wanted to make a difference,” Trent said. “I didn’t think I’d made a difference the first time (I had cancer). That’s what I prayed for: If I’m going to have cancer, use me to make an impact.”

And have an impact he did.

“He was only 20 years old,” said SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt on Tuesday night. “But in those 20 years he made a mark and a dent, and left a legacy that’s going to outlive us all.”

Trent’s life may be over, but the finality of his battle doesn’t equate to a loss or a surrender to this horrible disease.

Because in every way, Tyler Trent won.

Column: A most thankful Thanksgiving

At the first Thanksgiving, the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock celebrated a feast thanking God for their newfound home and for bringing them safely there.

This year, in the spirit of the holiday’s origins, I too am thankful for a new home and the journey to get here over the last year.

I have so much to be thankful for this year, so strap in. If anyone set an over/under on my use of the word thankful here, I hope you all took the over.

Ten days ago, I began a new job at The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, North Carolina, leaving The Clayton Tribune in Rabun County, Georgia after 14 months on the job there.

I am so thankful to The Courier-Tribune for this excellent opportunity to advance my career, allowing me to move to a daily newspaper in a bigger market and giving me the chance to cover sports at a larger set of high schools, with some college sports mixed in too. I’m thankful they think enough of me to bring me back — I interned with them in the summer of 2016.

But perhaps the best part of moving to Asheboro is being closer to home and my family. I’m closer to my parents in South Carolina, but I’m now very close to my grandmother and much of my extended family in central North Carolina. I’m thankful to be within a 30-minute drive of such important people in my life, especially after being three to four hours away (depending on where I lived) for the last nine years since my parents and I moved to South Carolina.

Even as I’ve left Clayton, I’m thankful for the opportunity I had there. I very much enjoyed my time there and it was a great position to allow me to familiarize myself with the industry while covering high school sports (and even a little bit of news too) at a weekly newspaper in the beautiful northeast Georgia mountains. I developed some incredible relationships in Rabun County while getting the treat of covering three successful high school athletics programs.

And just as the pilgrims were grateful for reaching Plymouth Rock safely, I’m thankful I made it through possibly the toughest six months of my life earlier this year.

While my time at The Clayton Tribune was incredible, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t without some bumps.

During the holiday season of 2017 our editor and our publisher left within a month of each other — a tough time anywhere but a major blow at a small weekly paper — and me and one other young reporter, my friend and then-roommate Tommy Culkin (who has since taken his own excellent opportunity in Texas), were left to keep the paper running (at least from the editorial side) for two months before reinforcements could arrive.

It was a baptism by fire, a stressful time full of some long nights on deadline day and more weight on my shoulders than I felt I was capable of bearing.

But now, on the other end of it, I have come to be thankful for the positive aftereffects of this. I am a better journalist from learning how to do the job under that kind of pressure, and I’m now better-equipped to maintain composure when the job gets hectic.

During the turnover in Clayton, I lost both of my grandfathers in a 90-day span. Of course I miss them both, but I’ve also come to appreciate the influence of their lives on mine. I’m thankful to have known them both for 23 years, for both of them to have lived long, productive lives (84 and 90 years) and the comfort through my faith of knowing they’re truly in a better place.

I’ve said a lot in this space, but I’m really just scratching the surface on what I’m thankful for this year.

I’m actually working this Thanksgiving Day — somebody has to get the paper out, and it’s falling to the new guy — but it doesn’t bother me in the least.

One reason is because I’m reaping the advantages of being much closer to family by taking a long lunch break to go enjoy our meal.

But beyond that, I’ve reached a point in my life I don’t need to set aside a day to give thanks.

I’m so grateful, for all of the above and more, that every day is Thanksgiving Day.

Column: Ring the siren

Around 5:20 p.m. on Sunday, a siren blazed from the center of Dawsonville, Georgia.

There was no fire truck responding to a call, and it wasn’t a weather siren. In fact, there was no emergency of any kind — actually, the exact opposite: Chase Elliott had won a race.

The Dawsonville native and son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott won Sunday’s GoBowling at the Glen race, taking his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory.

When “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” was in his prime, the Dawsonville Pool Room began ringing a siren to let the townspeople know their favorite son had won.

The siren rang often in the 1980’s and 1990’s, as Elliott notched 44 wins and the 1988 Cup Series championship.

Bill earned his final win in Nov. 2003, and while the siren did sound for Chase’s wins in NASCAR’s lower-tier series — including a championship in 2014 in the XFinity Series, NASCAR’s equivalent of AAA baseball — it did not for a win on racing’s grandest stage, the Cup Series, until Chase conquered Watkins Glen, a road course track in upstate New York, on Sunday.

Chase Elliott finished second in eight races before Sunday’s win, which came in his 99th career start. The 22-year-old driver has already become one of the sport’s most popular figures, but some questioned how long it would take before his breakthrough win.

That triumph came Sunday, more loud and clear than the siren blow it initiated.

Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet had to duel for the lead with 2015 series champion Kyle Busch, who has won six races this year, for much of the race. Then, with Busch out of the way due to a fueling issue, Elliott had to fend off Martin Truex Jr. over the closing laps. Truex is not only the defending series champion, but had won the circuit’s previous two road course races.

Overcoming eight runner-up finishes before earning a win is nothing new to the Elliotts — Bill did the same leading up to his first win in 1983.

If history is any indicator, more wins could be on the way for Chase, and soon. After Bill’s inaugural win in the 1983 season finale, he won three races in 1984, then 11 in 1985. Jeff Gordon, whose seat at Hendrick Motorsports Chase Elliott filled, had a similar surge after his first win.

Such a surge by Chase Elliott would be exactly what NASCAR needs. The sport has been mired in a TV ratings and attendance slump over the last several years, and the positive publicity of Elliott’s win Sunday was quickly overshadowed when news broke Monday morning of the arrest of NASCAR CEO Brian France, who was charged with DUI and possession of a controlled substance.

But if Elliott can return to the winner’s circle soon, and if he can do so often, it may inject some much-needed energy back into the sport.

That energy was there Sunday in Watkins Glen, as the partisan crowd cheered boisterously when he completed his maiden victory.

That energy was also in Dawsonville, when the siren sounded and when Elliott returned Sunday night to the applause of several dozen friends and family.

If Elliott can win more often moving forward, perhaps that energy will spread.

But one thing’s for sure: if he wins more often moving forward, as many think he will, the residents of Dawsonville may need to buy some earplugs.

Because the siren’s about to ring some more.

Column: Goat ropings and rodeos

On May 20, 2010, the Atlanta Braves overcame a 9-3 deficit in the ninth inning to beat the Cincinnati Reds 10-9, an incredible comeback capped by a pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam by journeyman backup infielder Brooks Conrad.

Longtime Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson said of the comeback “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Sunday, eight years to the day after Conrad’s memorable hit, the 2018 edition of the Braves came back in similar fashion, using a six-run ninth inning to beat the Miami Marlins, by an identical score of 10-9.

This comeback was just as amazing as the one eight years earlier, if not more so; this one came without the benefit of a single extra-base hit, as the Braves methodically chopped away at the Marlins lead — down to their last strike 10 times — before finally winning on a bullet down the left-field line by Dansby Swanson.

Swanson’s turn as the hero was nearly as unlikely as Conrad’s — it was Swanson’s first hit since missing 15 games with a wrist injury.

After watching the Braves finish off the improbable victory on Sunday, I said to myself: “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

(Ok, I’ve been to one rodeo, and haven’t been to a goat roping. But you get the point.)

But while the comeback was incredible, some of the comments made by the team afterward were perhaps even more telling about the makeup of this Braves team.

“I almost expect them to do it,” said manager Brian Snitker. “Down six in the bottom of the fifth, I felt good. I really did. I thought, ‘these guys have a lot of time to go to work here.’”

“It just shows the belief and pedigree in this team that we have this much belief in each other,” said Freddie Freeman. “It’s fun to be a part of. When you have everybody bought in to play like that, it’s truly amazing what can happen.”

After rebuilding seasons of 95, 93 and 90 losses the last three years, the Braves are back — they sit at 29-18, holding the best record in the National League and a 1 1/2 game lead in the NL East. Atlanta, the state of Georgia and the whole southeast (“Braves Country”) has a team to be excited about again.

I wasn’t around for the “worst-to-first” season of 1991, in which the Braves reached the World Series — their first since moving to Atlanta — after three straight last-place finishes in their division. I’ve always wondered how thrilling that experience must have been like for the Braves and their fans.

Perhaps this season is providing a taste of that — and hopefully, like 1991, the thrills will continue all the way into October.

Going back to those rodeos, the Braves are sitting on a bull named “First Place,” something very few expected when the season began eight weeks ago.

It’s still early — if the 162-game schedule is the fabled “eight-second ride,” we’re a little over two seconds in. Some say the Braves, as young as they are, are sure to fall off the bull before the eight seconds is up.

But given their knack for comebacks, their will and determination, and what appears from a distance to be a great team chemistry, I like their chances.

That bull is sure to try and throw the Braves off — every team goes through plenty of adversity over the course of 162 games that, if they’re not ready for it, can throw them — but I have a feeling that when the eight seconds is up, the Braves could very well be the last ones standing and advance into the goat roping known as the postseason.

And if it happens, I’ll be the first to say: “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”