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Virginia Won Its First National Championship and Rewrote Its Program Legacy

Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers long had a reputation as NCAA tournament choke artists. They became champions by excelling in every dramatic, unlikely, and how-did-that-just-happen moment imaginable.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One year after watching from the sideline as his team suffered the most humiliating defeat in college basketball history, De’Andre Hunter hit the shot that kept Virginia’s 2019 championship hopes alive.

Down three points with 12 seconds remaining in regulation of Monday night’s national championship game, Cavaliers guard Ty Jerome drove toward the rim, drawing the Texas Tech defense in around him. As three Red Raiders collapsed the paint to contest a layup, Jerome turned and launched the ball to the corner, where Hunter collected it, rose up, and fired. It was the biggest shot of his career, good from the moment it left his hand. It was also the shot that Virginia fans will rave about for generations when discussing how the school captured its first basketball national title.

In overtime, Hunter sank another 3 from nearly the same spot, giving Virginia a 75-73 lead it wouldn’t relinquish. When the final horn sounded, its advantage had swelled to 85-77, and the Hoos swarmed the court as champions. The eight-point margin of victory was Virginia’s largest since opening weekend. It was cause for equal parts celebration and relief, as the program’s legacy has now—finally, mercifully—been rewritten.

This NCAA tournament was never easy for Virginia. That was entirely to be expected, given the program’s recent history. In 10 seasons under head coach Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers have at least tied for a share of the ACC regular-season title four times and entered the NCAA tournament as a no. 1 or no. 2 seed five times. Prior to 2018-19, though, they’d never advanced past the Elite Eight. In 2014 they were defeated by fourth-seeded Michigan State, 61-59; in 2015 they were upset by the Spartans again, 60-54; in 2016, they fell to 10th-seeded Syracuse, 68-62; and last season they became the first no. 1 seed in college basketball history to lose its opening-round game against a 16th-seeded opponent. University of Maryland–Baltimore County didn’t just beat the Cavaliers—it demolished them, 74-54, seemingly invalidating Bennett’s whole system in the process.

True to form, the Hoos trailed by 14 in the first half of their first-round game against Gardner-Webb a few weeks ago. They went into the break down 36-30, and talk started to spread that Virginia could be destined to repeat its greatest failure. But then Hunter found his stroke, and the Cavs rolled by 15. They won more comfortably against Oklahoma (63-51) in the second round but still looked like a ghost of the team that had gone 29-3 entering the tournament. And then they figured out how to take their reputation for choking and flip it completely on its head.

The Hoos were tied with 12th-seeded Oregon with just under six minutes remaining in their Sweet 16 matchup, and nearly gave the game away in the waning minutes. Yet Hunter scored four points in the final 30 seconds, and Virginia won 53-49. Then it took miracles to get by Purdue and Auburn in the Elite Eight and Final Four, respectively. I’ve watched the below clip roughly 700 times. I still can’t believe it happened.

Twice in the past two weeks, Virginia went to the free throw line with just over a second remaining and its season hanging in the balance. Twice in the past two weeks, it survived. On Monday, despite blowing a 59-51 lead with less than six minutes left in regulation, the Cavs emerged victorious again. Some of the credit is due to an overturned out-of-bounds call at a critical juncture; most of it is due to Virginia finally playing like the best team in the sport not only during the regular season, but when it mattered most too.

Hunter, Jerome, and Kyle Guy combined for 67 points against Texas Tech, including 11 of Virginia’s 17 overtime tallies. Each time the Hoos faced a deficit, one of the three was there with a dagger, a key pass to keep the team within striking distance, or some clear-eyed, bet-the-house-on-them foul shots. And while Tech found sporadic success from potential NBA lottery pick Jarrett Culver, guards Matt Mooney and Davide Moretti, and impact bench players Brandone Francis and Kyler Edwards, its output wasn’t enough to pull away from the Hoos. It was simply Virginia’s time.

Monday night’s game was the highest-scoring national title matchup since Michigan State toppled Florida in 2000. That’s surprising considering that Texas Tech entered the contest with not only with the best defense in the country, but arguably the best in college basketball history. Since 2002—the earliest season for which KenPom data is available—no team had graded higher in adjusted defensive efficiency than these Red Raiders. Virginia, with its infamously slow system, played nearly as effectively on that end of the floor, just as it had for years. Except the most talented team Bennett has ever coached could do more than defend. Behind Guy, Jerome, and Hunter, the Hoos put together the second-best offensive season in college basketball, per KenPom, and featured shooters at almost every position.

Virginia secured its redemption in much the same way that it previously failed: by the skin of its teeth. But one year after becoming a punch line, Tony Bennett and Co. outraced their demons to deliver the final blow.