MINNEAPOLIS — A year after exiting the court as a picture of embarrassment, the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in the men’s NCAA Tournament, Virginia left wearing a crown Monday night.
The Cavaliers defeated Texas Tech, 85-77, in overtime for the university’s first national basketball championship and immeasurable redemption.
This title game was the first in 40 years between men’s teams that had never been there before. The last one was the showdown in which Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team beat Larry Bird and Indiana State in Salt Lake City.
To win the title, Virginia not only had to get past six opponents, but it also had to beat back ghosts from last year and questions about whether coach Tony Bennett’s methodical system was suited to championship basketball.
Bennett, whose father, Dick, took Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000, had built Virginia into a powerhouse during his 10 years at the university but had advanced beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament only twice before this season.
Last season’s disappointment stung like no other.
It lingered below the surface all season for the Cavaliers, who promised that they would be better for the experience of losing to the hitherto anonymous team from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Kyle Guy, a starting guard, has used a photo of himself, bent over with his head in his hands while UMBC players celebrated around him, as his Twitter avatar for the last year. And when a reporter recently apologized for asking a question about that game, Guy told him it was not necessary.
“If you have a conflict, try to hit it head on,” Guy explained Sunday. “That’s the only way you’re going to get past it, and that’s something that I’ve learned over the years: If you shy away from it, that’s where sometimes your anxiety will come in and haunt you. So I just wanted to hit it head on.”
The Cavaliers have been tested early and often in this tournament.
It began when another No. 16 seed, Gardner-Webb, bolted to a 14-point lead over the Cavaliers. But this group steadied itself and eventually cruised to a comfortable victory.
Virginia then showed a cool hand in a win over Purdue in the South Region final, as freshman point guard Kihei Clark tracked down a loose ball and fired a pass to forward Mamadi Diakite, who flicked in a shot at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
The Cavaliers’ victory over Auburn in the Final Four was even more miraculous. (Or, for Auburn fans, more distressingly incomprehensible.) With Virginia trailing by 2 points, Guy was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left in the semifinal. In front of 72,000 people in the cavernous U.S. Bank Stadium, Guy sank all three free throws for the victory.
The final challenge came against Texas Tech.
And when it was over, the redemption was complete.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.