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Virginia Won the National Championship Because It Learned to Stop Fearing Death

In 2018, Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers suffered the most humiliating loss in NCAA tournament history. A year later, they beat Texas Tech to clinch the program’s first national title. The two events explain each other, and magnify each other.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Virginia beat Texas Tech in a very important basketball game on Monday night. In doing so, it all but ensured that its March 16, 2018, loss to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County will forever be remembered as the greatest upset in college basketball history.

After the final buzzer sounded in that game last year, the Cavaliers became the first no. 1 seed ever to lose to a no. 16 seed, snapping a streak of 135 consecutive 1-over-16 NCAA tournament victories. The Cavaliers’ coaches and players had to know that they would always be linked with that failure. But they also knew that failure didn’t have to be the whole story. What if the UMBC loss was Virginia’s last major letdown before the dawn of a dynasty, the fuel for a fire that burned brighter than any other in college basketball? What if that was the moment that freakishly bad things stopped happening to Virginia in March and freakishly good things started happening instead? What if the Book of Job ended with Job dunking while Satan wept during the “One Shining Moment” montage? (Job’s garbage friends, who argued that God would not punish an innocent man and therefore that Job must have sinned to deserve so much pain in life, wrote the original “Virginia’s system explains why they lost to UMBC” takes.)

If Virginia’s loss to UMBC would have been the last that we’d ever heard of the Cavaliers, the luster of the upset would eventually fade. Instead, Virginia guaranteed that we will never forget how historically strange that result was. UMBC wasn’t just a no. 16 seed that beat a no. 1 seed. It was a no. 16 seed that beat a group of coaches and players who one year and 23 days later would be crowned national champions.

In 2018, Virginia lost by 20 points as a massive favorite; in 2019, it pulled off miracle after miracle as the outside world waited for it to crumble. The Cavaliers proved that college basketball’s greatest fluke might be when the sport’s best team wins six consecutive single-elimination games to become national champions.

Virginia was the best team in college basketball this season. According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Cavaliers held that distinction for most of 2019, sitting atop KenPom from January 15 through February 9, and then again from February 23 until now. Virginia had only two regular-season losses, both against Duke, as the Blue Devils were really the only team that had any claim to the throne alongside the Cavaliers. But Duke looked deeply flawed in Zion Williamson’s absence and in its subsequent NCAA tournament run.

Of course, Virginia was also the best team in college basketball last season. It likewise had two regular-season losses, a 68-61 defeat at West Virginia, which went on to make the Sweet 16, and a 61-60 overtime loss against Virginia Tech, which went on to become a no. 8 seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament. The Hoos held KenPom’s top spot from February 7 through the end of their season—which, for some reason, was a 20-point loss to a UMBC team far worse than the dozens of the squads they effortlessly demolished all year.

I always believed that someday a no. 16 seed would upset a no. 1 seed, but I never thought it would happen the way it did. I thought it would be some improbable triumph clinched via controversy or buzzer-beater. But no—UMBC came out and straight-up trucked Virginia 74-54.

Virginia could have panicked. Some schools might have fired their head coach after such a gruesome, historic tournament failure. Players could have transferred out in shame, seeking to restart their basketball lives somewhere less cursed. Many fans and media members blamed the loss on the Hoos’ style of play, as Virginia coach Tony Bennett favors a slow, methodical approach that many felt gave an underdog a better chance of keeping pace. Remember, Bennett’s Cavaliers also suffered tournament disappointments in 2017 (losing by 26 points against fourth-seeded Florida), 2016 (falling in the Elite Eight to 10th-seeded Syracuse), 2015 (losing to lower-seeded Michigan State), and 2014 (also losing to lower-seeded Michigan State).

But Virginia didn’t panic. Of course Bennett wasn’t going anywhere—he’s the coach who built these Hoos into a perennial powerhouse, capturing at least a share of four ACC regular-season championships after the previous two Virginia coaches, Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao, combined to notch just two NCAA tournament bids. The only players who left were graduates. And Virginia didn’t just retain its style in 2018-19—it got slightly slower than it was the season before, preserving its status as the slowest team in college basketball while increasing its average offensive possession length from 20.9 seconds to 21.0.

Virginia also had ample opportunity to panic in each of its final three NCAA tournament games this year. It could’ve panicked in the Elite Eight against Purdue, when the Cavaliers trailed by two points with five seconds left in regulation and Ty Jerome missed a free throw. Yet instead, Virginia pulled off the play of the tournament, a frenzied, madcap scramble executed so calmly that you’d think the Hoos practiced it daily.

Every part of this play was perfect. Jerome’s miss, which popped up just the right amount in the air. Mamadi Diakite’s back-tap, which would have been a failure if it hadn’t cleared Purdue’s rebounders or if it had flown too far into the backcourt. Kihei Clark’s scramble to chase the ball down and then his gorgeous, stunning, 40-foot pass back to Diakite. And of course, Diakite’s buzzer-beating shot. It was pinpoint, unwavering precision. And it allowed Virginia to survive long enough to pull out an 80-75 win.

Virginia could have panicked against Auburn in the Final Four, when it blew a 10-point lead in the final five minutes, eventually falling behind by four with less than 10 seconds to go. But Kyle Guy drilled a 3-pointer from one corner and was fouled shooting a 3 from the other. He drilled all three free throws. He didn’t even hit rim.

And Virginia could have panicked against Texas Tech on Monday, once again blowing a 10-point second-half lead and trailing late. The Cavaliers almost threw their whole redemptive run away—literally!—when a botched attempt to call a timeout at the end of regulation allowed Texas Tech to get the ball back with a second to go in a tied ballgame.

But they didn’t panic. All five Virginia players on the court scored in overtime as the Hoos won 85-77. A year after making the bad kind of history, the Cavaliers brought home the program’s first national championship.

Virginia didn’t just win a national title—it did so by completing the most daring tightrope walk imaginable. This team learned it could survive any fall after last year. But could guys live with themselves if they changed the way they operated? They chose to keep on being Virginia. Cue the confetti.

Bad things happen to good people and, in some cases, good sports teams. And sometimes when your worst-case scenario comes to life, it brings not only shame and sadness but also a strangely massive sense of relief. You wake up the next morning to find that the sun hasn’t exploded.

Virginia had its worst-case scenario happen last year. It lost the biggest upset in college basketball—and maybe sports—history. So this year, when the trickster gods of March Madness kept opening up doors to death, the Hoos repeatedly scoffed at them. What fate could this tournament hand them that they hadn’t lived through already? What did they possibly have to fear? The Cavaliers’ road to a championship featured dozens of ludicrous hairpin turns, and yet the team never faltered. It just kept driving at the same speed it always does—and yes, that speed is incredibly slow.

The Cavaliers’ national championship will forever remain linked with their loss to UMBC. Those two moments explain each other, and magnify each other. The glory of Virginia’s championship is more meaningful now that it’s clear how easy it is for a great team to lose; the sheer randomness of Virginia’s loss is heightened now that it’s clear that the team was good enough to win the national title. Virginia’s 2018 catastrophe is no longer a mark of shame for the team’s players, coaches, and fans—just an unerasable part of a unique story. Nobody has ever been in the valley that Virginia fell into. The Cavaliers climbed out and smiled.