MINNEAPOLIS — This time, there were tears of joy.
Virginia defeated Texas Tech, 85-77, in overtime to win the first NCAA championship in program history Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, one year after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in men’s tournament history.
De’Andre Hunter flung the ball toward the ceiling at the final buzzer, letting his giddy Cavaliers teammates mob him, the hero of this storybook comeback floating on a bed of gold and silver confetti.
Wahoowa! The University of Virginia men's basketball team is your 2018-19 National Champions!
The guard scored a game-high 27 points in the victory in addition to shutting down Raiders guard Jarrett Culver, a fellow likely lottery selection in the 2019 NBA Draft, in the overtime period.
As Virginia advanced through the NCAA Tournament, attracting more national eyes with each stunning victory, some sought meaning in another realm.
Was it destiny?
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“We have a saying: The most faithful win,” Coach Tony Bennett said from the podium during the tournament celebration. “And these men were faithful.”
How else to explain the pass Kihei Clark delivered to Mamadi Diakite in the dying moments of the team’s Elite Eight game against Purdue, and the jumper Diakite sunk to force overtime, preserving the Wahoos’ season? What about last Saturday, when Virginia, trailing Auburn by four points with 17 seconds left, advanced to the title game with three last-second free throws from the Kyle Guy?
Bennett embraced the spiritual parallels. Monday, he sat on a stool above his staff on the elevated court, watching as the Cavaliers won with the style of basketball long reviled for its apparent postseason flaws.
“Forget last year,” guard Ty Jerome said. “This is everything you dream of since you’re a kid.”
It needed to happen in overtime, of course. How else to complete the greatest redemption story in college basketball history?
Virginia led by as many as 10 points in the second half, but the Red Raiders, themselves in the middle of a magical postseason run, would not wilt.
Culver finished a layup over Hunter with 35 seconds remaining, giving the Red Raiders their first lead of the half. But after two made free throws from forward Norense Odiase — which the Cavaliers’ bench watched with interlocked arms — Hunter knotted the game at 68 with a 3-pointer in front of Virginia’s bench.
Hunter struck again in overtime, giving Virginia a 75-73 lead with another long ball from virtually the same spot.
The Cavaliers would not trail again.
They iced the game with free throws from Hunter, Guy (24 points), Jerome (16 points, eight assists, six rebounds), Diakite (nine points, seven rebounds, two blocks) and guard Braxton Key (six points, 10 rebounds), the nephew of Virginia legend Ralph Sampson, who guided the program to its first Final Four in 1981.
The season was full of funny coincidences.
There was Jan. 12, when Virginia beat up on Clemson as the Tigers’ football team celebrated its national championship mere feet away. There was March 4, when Kyle Guy hit eight 3-pointers to fell Syracuse as the national championship trophy set on a pedestal, ready for the taking. There was March 22, when Virginia trailed No. 16 Gardner-Webb by 14 points then flipped the script and began the magical run, all the way to Monday’s national championship game.
“There was a bigger plan going on here, and I didn’t need it, but I was used in it,” Bennett said.
As his players stormed the court when the buzzer sounded, Bennett took a moment to himself. He put his head down and prayed: “I’m humbled, Lord, because I don’t deserve to be in this spot, but you chose me to be here.”
Then the confetti fell, and the Cavaliers hugged each other and their mothers and fathers, and their sisters and brothers and significant others. They accepted their new hardware and watched the ‘One Shining Moment’ video. They returned to the locker room, put their arms around one another and listened to Bennett.
“Promise me,” the national champion coach said. “You will remain humble.”
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