MINNEAPOLIS – And now, Kyle Guy can change the picture on his cell phone at last. The long, long shadow is over. The happy ending of a fairy tale has arrived.
“I’ll get around to it,” said the young man wearing the cap with a piece of the championship net on the back – the very picture of the remarkable tale of redemption that will forever be the 2019 Virginia Cavaliers.
Look at what they did. Look at how they did it. It could be a storybook, it could be a movie. “I’m looking forward to the 30-for-30,” said Guy, named the Most Outstanding Player, in a Most Extraordinary Final Four, with a Most Unforgettable Plot.
For an entire year – 12 months of inner reflection, but also scrutiny and questions from the outside world – they sought to live by one theme. It was the one they had almost immediately turned to, trying to make sense of the night March had caved in on them.
Guy put it into words just the other day: “If you use it the right way, it can buy you ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.” Coach Tony Bennett had called it, “A painful gift.”
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It, of course, was the UMBC loss. March 16, 2018, a date which will live in Virginia infamy, or at least it did until Monday night, when we found out the destination of that ticket.
A year after hitting an historic and unimaginable bottom as the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a 16 – and by 20 points to boot -- Virginia is on a peak it has never seen before. An 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech, a national championship, a mission of atonement accomplished like maybe no other, when you consider the distance from where the Cavaliers were, to where they now are.
They saved themselves after falling behind Gardner-Webb by 14 points in the first round, and the ghosts of 2018 crowded around them. They saved themselves in the last second of regulation and beat Purdue in overtime in the regional final. They saved themselves in the last second on three Guy free throws Saturday to escape Auburn by a point. They saved themselves with a De’Andre Hunter 3-pointer with 14 seconds in regulation Monday, forcing the overtime they would own.
By then, what was there to say? What?
“I wish I had the words,” Guy said. “I just watched One Shining Moment, and I was on the stage watching it, I wasn’t at home.”
The best thing to do was study the Virginia family, on the floor and in the stands, and see just how incredibly their world had changed. To take in what a true 180-degree change in fate looks like.
A year ago, former coach Dick Bennett watched his son suffer through some of the darkest hours any NCAA Tournament coach has ever seen. Monday night, he stood on the court amid the fallen confetti and watched him being handed the championship trophy.
“Words aren’t very accurate when your emotions run them, and that’s where I am right now,” Dick Bennett said. “Last year was about as tough as it could but because he handled it so well, it made it easier on the rest of us. If he had been so broken-hearted it would have been very difficult, but he dealt with it the way he has always has dealt with things. He has a higher view of things.”
Bennett can rarely bring himself to attend Tony’s games, not even Saturday. “I’m not a model of decorum or poise but I thought it was more important to be here in case they lost. I guess I felt I needed to be. The thrill is worth the anguish.”
A year ago, Katy Fitzgerald watched in misery as her son Kyle Guy went to his knees on the court, in shattered desolation as the UMBC game ended. Monday night, she was weeping into her hands as her son came over the rail to hug her, his father Joe Guy, their spouses, his fiancé Alexa Jenkins. All of them.
“This is an out-of-body experience,” she said. “It’s been a struggle for all of us. It’s been a struggle for his fiancé, it’s been a struggle for him. But it’s worth it in the end.”
Said his father Joe, “You’re talking about, like, death, as compared to a lot of life.”
And Kyle would later say, “That’s what I wanted to do. When we lost last year, that’s the moment I was waiting for; to be able to run in the stands and hug my family. “
What an incredible season for UVA. That was truly a turnaround for the ages! Congratulations, champs! 🏆— UMBC Men's Basketball (@UMBC_MBB) April 9, 2019
A year ago, Ty Jerome was one of the Cavaliers that Bennett chose to face the media in the post-UMBC press conference. It had been awful. But now it’s yesterday.
“I’m not even thinking about UMBC right now,” he said. “I’m just thinking this is a dream come true.”
A year ago, Bennett was trying to figure how to cope with a nightmare.
Monday night, he knew just how to use it, for this is what he told his team in the locker before the game.
“You guys faced pressure that no team in the history of the game has faced – well, really all year -- but being down 14 to Gardner-Webb and you did not panic in that moment and you fought and you found a way out. That, I think, has prepared you for this moment.”
It was reserve Braxton Key who said the other day, “This is everything we’ve worked for.”
VIRGINIA WINS: Click here for a printable bracket.
And cried for, and yearned for, and – for a spiritual coach and team - even prayed for. They wanted to move on, but they also wanted to remember, which is why an image from the UMBC loss has been on Guy’s cell phone and wall and Twitter for nearly 13 months. That way, he could see every hour of every day where he and his team had been, to better understand where they wanted to go.
“We tried to just put one foot in front of another for the next 12 months.”
That mantra was there last summer, when Bennett took his team on a rafting trip as part of the huddling against the storm, and he lay on the raft and looked up and wondered. “I remember saying to myself, `OK, all right Lord, what’s this year going to bring? I remember . . . it was the most beautiful setting, just floating down the river with these guys, and I remember saying that in my mind.”
It was there when Guy decided to put his struggle with anxiety into public words, so others who face the same issue might hear a sympathetic voice. “I became a better man, I became a better basketball player because of it, so that’s why I keep it there. It’s much more than that loss,” he said.
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It was there when they plowed through the demanding season, losing only to Duke and Florida State. It was there when the NCAA tournament began, and they all knew the questions to come. “We’re ready to put on a show, so we can talk about something else,” Guy said then.
It was there with back-to-back last-second miracles against Purdue and Auburn. By then, you wondered. After the way it ended last year –the humiliation, the ridicule, even the death threats that had police escorting them to their hotel rooms – had fate decided maybe it owed them something?
“Karma, payback? I don’t know,” Bennett said Sunday.
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Well, there was the young lady in the Virginia student section Monday night holding up a sign with the well-known quote, “I’m a great believer in luck, and find the harder I work the more I have of it. – Thomas Jefferson.” He founded the University of Virginia, by the way.
But neither karma nor luck nor Thomas Jefferson beat Texas Tech Monday night. It was 27 points by Hunter –including 22 after halftime, and the three biggest when Virginia was in peril. Again. It was Guy’s 24 points, and the team defense and execution poise in overtime to go 12-for-12 from the line and a purpose too strong to ever get tired. The starters had to do so much heavy lifting. Virginia just won two games despite being outscored 52-8 in bench points.
“We did the little things. We’re built for this,” Guy sad. “We knew the will to win wasn’t enough. We had to do everything possible to win. We left it all on the court.”
Said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard, “If you talk about a team of destiny, I just think they are really, really good.”
But it certainly had the feel of some destiny, of karma, of something. You can’t erase the past, but you can certainly make it feel different. That's the legacy of the Virginia Cavaliers. That UMBC score is still in the record books, but now it haunts so less.
“You have scars, right? You have a scar and it reminds you of that, but it’s a memory,” Bennett said. “ Does it go away completely? No, I wish it wouldn’t have happened in some ways. Now I say, it bought us a ticket here. So be it.
“Is the pain gone? I still feel a little, `uhhh,’ because I remember that feeling, but I think we’re OK.”
No, they're champions. UMBC? That was something that happened a long, long time ago. March 16, 2018 might always ring a bell for Virginia – but never as loudly as April 8, 2019 will.