By Nancy Armour |
It was never easy. It wasn’t supposed to be.
The humiliation of the loss to Maryland-Baltimore County, and the criticism and ridicule that followed. The introspection that forced every Virginia player and coach to take a hard look at himself and ask even harder questions. The heart-stopping wins, one more dramatic than the next, just to get to Monday night.
And, finally, overtime, in a game the Cavaliers seemingly had won.
But look hard enough, and you can find beauty in any ugliness. Stay strong enough, and there will be joy following all that pain.
Virginia didn’t just win its first national title Monday night, it shed its label as a postseason underachiever and exorcised the demons that have shadowed the Cavaliers for the last year. Those early March exists? That humiliating loss to UMBC? They may not be forgotten, but they have lost their venomous sting.
“As soon as the buzzer sounded and we were done (last year), we knew all had the same goal in mind for next year and that was to win a national championship,” Kyle Guy said after Virginia had done just that, outlasting Texas Tech 85-77.
“We’ve all had our own battles,” Guy said. “I said earlier it’s a really special group because we all had the same `Why?’ amongst other whys. But to share the same one, and to battle everything we battled through and come out on top, it’s a fantastic feeling.”
Virginia was humbled in a way no other team in college athletics has ever been last year, the first No. 1 men’s seed – the overall No. 1 seed, at that – to lose to a 16, an upset once considered as mythical as the Loch Ness Monster and the White Walkers. Handling that with grace and dignity would be a tall ask for an adult, let alone teenagers and early 20-somethings.
And yet, they did, showing a maturity beyond their years and a grace more impressive than their athletic abilities. Guy, famously, kept a reminder of the game as both the screensaver on his phone and the avatar on his Twitter page.
He also shared letters he wrote to himself – deeply personal, emotional letters – he used to make sense of all those “Whys?” He has spoken openly about his anxiety, and what he does to tame it.
“He’s just got it,” coach Tony Bennett said. “You look at him, and he’s not the most physical guy, but it’s inside. … I could go down the (roster), but that’s what you look for. You take guys who are tough mentally and skilled and smart and have enough athleticism, and you can be really good.”
It was not a surprise that Virginia won the rock fight with Texas Tech. Its defensive bona fides are both well-established and long-standing, passed on by Bennett’s father, Dick, who never met an 80-point game he didn’t love.
The Cavaliers were relentless in their suffocation of Jarrett Culver, whose next stop is likely the NBA lottery. Culver didn’t make his first field goal until almost five minutes had passed in the second half, and he finished the night a dismal 5-of-22.
But it was the confidence with which they played that stood out. De’Andre Hunter, also destined for the NBA lottery, scored 22 of his 27 points in the second half, including a 3 with 2:07 left that might as well have been a dagger. The Cavaliers also went 12-for-12 from the line in overtime, a sign of the mental strength that has been forged these last 12 months.
As for Guy, this postseason has been a struggle. He could not crack double figures in Virginia’s first two NCAA tournament games, and barely got there against Oregon in the Sweet 16.
Yet he has kept shooting. And somehow, when his team has needed him most, he has come through, embodying the promise he made in one of those letters last year to realize “every second is an opportunity not an obligation.”
He took the 3 in that last second against Auburn and, after being fouled, made all three shots to give Virginia the win. He had 24 against Texas Tech, and was 4-for-4 from the line in overtime.
“I think we’ve taken every experience that we’ve been through together and tried to use it in a way that could propel us to a national championship,” said Guy, who was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
When the final buzzer sounded, Guy sprinted the length of the court, grinning so brightly it could be seen all the way back in Indiana. He then turned and leaped into Hunter’s arms as confetti rained down upon them.
Bennett, meanwhile, wore a satisfied smile as he shook hands with Texas Tech coach Chris Beard before wandering back to the middle of the court. Only when he was asked to put Virginia’s name in the spot reserved for the national champion on an oversized bracket did the emotions of this last year surface, slapping the sticker on the board hard, and then hitting it a few more times for emphasis.
“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, well, it bought us a ticket here. So be it.
“Is the pain gone? I still feel a little `uhh’ because I remember that feeling,” he added. “But I think we’re OK.”
It wasn’t easy, none of it. But clearly it was worth it.
Scars and all.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.