Final Four 2019: Why Virginia needed last year's historic UMBC loss to galvanize this year's Cavaliers
The Cavaliers have been motivated by last season's loss when they became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16
MINNEAPOLIS -- Virginia will . The game against Auburn will be played 387 days since Tony Bennett's team made college basketball history in the worst of ways, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in an NCAA Tournament game.
Shortly after that game, Kyle Guy, now a sharp-shooting junior guard, downloaded onto his phone a photo from that game that showed Virginia's devastation. Since then, he has looked at a photo of the UMBC Retrievers upsetting his team every single day. It's not some masochistic exercise, not some ritual of self-torture that Guy has been putting himself through.
Far from it.
Like everything this team has done since that historic loss, it was an intentional strategy to help him get past the lowest moment of his basketball career.
"I feel like when you can remember a tough time that you've been through and then set a goal to overcome that – and we've done that so far – you're going to be better off," Guy said when I asked him why he looks at that photograph every day. "I did it as inspiration. Motivation is short term, inspiration is long term. That's always going to inspire me. I just think it was a life-changing moment on and off the court, and I didn't want to forget it."
The biggest key to Virginia's season had nothing to do with tweaking their pack-line defense, or spreading out the offense more, or bringing DeAndre Hunter's game to the next level where he's now considered one of the best NBA prospects in college basketball. The most important role that Bennett had was to serve as a therapist of sorts for this team – to take that moment on March 16, 2018 at Charlotte's Spectrum Center and turn it into a positive.
"That was such a pivotal moment, and devastating in so many ways, and humbling, that I knew we had to be there for each other in ways we never would have had that not happened," Bennett said this week. "So it was about sitting together, talking, and just working through stuff and battling through it, and trusting each other. That situation made me take a look at a lot of things. There's no way I would have gotten this close to my team in a way. It drew me closer to my family, to my faith. Those situations put you in that, but also what can we do to be better in certain situations as a team? You think differently. Through any adversity, there's such wisdom in it."
The night of that game, I wrote that losing to UMBC would stick with Bennett forever – and that there's no coach in college basketball better equipped to handle it than Bennett. The reason I wrote that was because I remembered a few years before when Virginia crumbled against Syracuse in the Elite Eight, blowing a 16-point second half lead. Up until that point, it was the most devastating loss of Bennett's career. I remember him going up to the podium that night and quoting from scripture.
"Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning," Bennett said that night, paraphrasing Psalm 30:5. "We will have some tough nights, because you're so close you could taste it, but absolutely joy will come in the morning for what these guys have established for Virginia basketball."
Joy came to these guys last weekend. They avenged their UMBC loss in the most satisfying way possible, taking Virginia to a Final Four for the first time since 1984. They exorcised those UMBC demons. But it isn't in spite of that UMBC loss that Virginia is now on the cusp of the school's first national title. It is because of that loss.
"That's always going to inspire me. I just think it was a life-changing moment on and off the court, and I didn't want to forget it."Virginia's Kyle Guy
"I don't think about it out of the blue any more like I used to," Guy told me. "But it changed my life for the better… It made me become closer to my fiancé, my family, with God. It just made you appreciate all the good times."
On Thursday I asked Bennett about how that loss changed him, and what spiritual lessons he took from it. Bennett is a Christian in the best of ways – someone who is respectful and confident in his faith without coming across as pushy. It's a delicate line to toe for an employee of a publicly funded university, but Bennett is comfortable in that role.
"There's a scripture verse that says, 'Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have, but do it with gentleness and respect,' " Bennett said. "Everybody is at a different place with what they believe and where they're at, but when you're put in a spot like that – and there's a lot worse things – but it makes you rely upon what matters. What's unconditional in your life. That's, for me, my relationship with my wife, my parents, my kids, but the greatest joy that I know is my relationship with the Lord.
"Sometimes when you get knocked down, you find out how real that is," Bennett continued. "There's a perspective in it and a peace that is not really of the manmade stuff we're talking about. So I'm just so thankful for that. Adversity is maybe the greatest teacher, even though it's not enjoyable."
At the time, it didn't feel like it – not for Bennett, not for his players, not for Virginia fans. But as it turns out, losing to UMBC a year ago was the best thing that could have happened for this Virginia team.
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