A year after its epic March fail, Virginia tries again

There’s no way Virginia can forget UMBC, but did the Cavaliers’ first postseason game after suffering the biggest upset in college basketball annals have to come at the arena where, 363 days ago, they fell on the wrong side of history? Was there any way for UVA not to be rattled by the wretched memories of the Spectrum Center?

On March 16, 2018, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament annals to be unhorsed by a No. 16. On Thursday, the again-top-seeded Cavs worked a horrid first half in the ACC quarterfinals, trailing N.C. State at the break. Granted, losing in a conference tournament would have been no huge deal, but still: Was UVA doing the UVA thing again?

Final score: Virginia 76, State 56. Next question, please.

Two weeks after the historic loss, Tony Bennett was feted at the Final Four as the Associated Press coach of the year. After being handed the trophy, he said: “It was a heck of a season, with a heck of a loss at the end.” The first seven questions posed by the assembled media involved, directly or tangentially, Maryland-Baltimore County. Bennett offered long and thoughtful answers with the grace we’ve come to expect. (He’s about the world’s nicest guy.)

Said Bennett that day in San Antonio: “I got a great text from one of my players, Ty Jerome, and he said, ‘Coach, this is now part of our story, and we get to respond to it the way we want. And it will be day-by-day where we can make the right steps.’”

Then: “Everybody says, you know, you'll be better because of this loss. And the fact of the matter is, the only way you're better after a tough loss is if you respond to it the right way. If you do nothing with it and just say, ‘Ah, this was tough,’ then nothing's going to happen. But if you respond the right way and use it for the right kind of motivation, then I think you'll improve from it and you'll grow.”

After such a loss, some basketball men might have done as Bobby Cremins did after his playing days ended with South Carolina being upset by N.C. State in the ACC final – literally head for the hills. Barely two weeks after UMBC, Bennett was out walking in San Antonio with his wife and children on Sunday morning, just another family at the Final Four.

And here Virginia is again, 29-2 and positioned to be the NCAA tournament’s overall No. 1 for a second year running. So, he was asked Thursday, would this constitute Responding the Right Way?

Said Bennett: “I think we've grown from that experience. We've owned it. We've talked about it. We had a great year last year and a hard loss. There's not any more to say about that, and I'll get asked and we'll answer the question, but it's time to press on and be as focused as we can and just get good, but certainly grow from all your experiences.”

Said Kyle Guy, Virginia’s star shooter: “You guys don't have to apologize for asking those (UMBC) questions. I'm happy to answer them. Feels good to be back right here in this press conference room where we were last time, and just like Coach said, ready to press on and move on from it, learn from it.”

Thursday’s game was both ugly Virginia and vintage Virginia. The Cavs led 16-6, only to score just six points over the next 11-1/2 minutes. Their famous defense kept them close – that’s what it’s for – but the nation’s No. 2 team trailed State, which isn’t an NCAA lock, by two at the half.

A never-before-seen offensive onslaught by Jack Salt, the 6-foot-10 screener/rebounder from New Zealand, put the Cavs ahead. Salt had last scored a point against Notre Dame on Feb. 16. Here he mustered eight in three minutes, prompting UVA fans to swoon in disbelief. He converted two 3-point plays, and it was unclear what was more extraordinary – the baseline drive-and-duck-under move on the first, or the sight of a career 44.3 free throw shooters hitting two in a row.

When De’Andre Hunter sank a trey – he and Jerome had missed 12 of their first 13 shots – Virginia’s lead was nine. En route to 29 points, Guys nailed three blurry-fast 3-pointers. Then Salt whomped down a massive dunk to give him a career-best 13 points, an achievement he celebrated by chinning himself on the rim. He and Bennett protested the ensuing technical foul, but by then the Cavs were 16 up and nobody cared about the sudden scorer’s moment of excess.

Said Salt, who finished with 18 points: “I haven't jumped from that far and dunked in a while, and so I had to hold onto the rim or else I would have fell on my head.”

After the UMBC loss, some among us media types – that's my hand you see raised – tut-tutted, "That's why Virginia will never win it all: It plays too slow and doesn't score enough." Per Ken Pomeroy's ranking, these Cavs are No. 2 nationally in offensive efficiency -- but they're still last in pace of play. Come the Big Dance, that cuts their margin for error awfully fine.

As much as the Cavaliers have sought to move beyond UMBC, this will be their first NCAA tournament post-UMBC. They won’t lose to a No. 16 again – lightning doesn’t strike twice – but only after they reach a Final Four under Bennett will his go-slow method be vindicated. Oh, and one thing more:

The UMBC Retrievers could themselves be dancing again. They face Vermont in the American East final Saturday. You’ll forgive Bennett and his men if they find themselves rooting for the Catamounts.

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