It was an unmistakable sign for Bennett that destiny was hovering around the program given the heartbreak of how last season ended in the round of 64.
“I believe our steps are ordered,” he said the day before the top-seeded Cavaliers face No. 3 seed Texas Tech on Monday night in the first national championship game for both schools. “I just, I believe that, so the fact that we’re here, yeah, I think there’s been a hand in this. In my life, I’d be foolish not to believe that.”
Bennett is far from alone.
Junior guard Kyle Guy is convinced there’s karma in the works for Virginia (34-3), which survived some of the most improbable moments in this NCAA tournament to become the first Cavaliers team to advance to the Final Four since 1984.
If Guy didn’t believe in serendipity previously, the events that unfolded Saturday night against No. 5 seed Auburn in the national semifinal, as well as against No. 3 seed Purdue in the South Region final, would be enough to turn even the most rigid skeptic.
“We’ve done a good job of trying to control what we can control,” Guy said. “Effort, stuff like that, and we try to be so disciplined as a team. It’s gotten us this far, and we’re going to continue to do that. Obviously I’m a man of faith, so I know there’s a plan.”
With sixth-tenths of a second left and Virginia trailing the Tigers by two, Guy pulled up for a three-pointer from the left corner and drew a foul on Auburn guard Samir Doughty. Guy made the first two free throws, and after a timeout from Tigers Coach Bruce Pearl, he sank the go-ahead foul shot in the 63-62 win at U.S. Bank Stadium.
As if that sequence weren’t improbable enough, Guy also had made a three-pointer with 7.4 seconds to play to draw the Cavaliers within 61-60 before Tigers guard Jared Harper made 1 of 2 free throws.
Two seconds later, Virginia point guard Ty Jerome was dribbling upcourt when he mishandled the ball, gathering it again with both hands and continuing his dribble. Officials did not call a double-dribble violation. Replays also showed an Auburn player tugging at Jerome’s jersey.
“You can call it luck,” Jerome said. “You can call it whatever you want. We’re thankful to still be playing, absolutely.”
Jerome displayed that joy by being among the first teammates to mob Guy after his decisive free throws. Reserve sophomore forward Austin Katstra hugged Guy and lifted him off the ground.
Mamadi Diakite recalled thinking back only a week earlier when he was at the center of what’s sure to become one of the most iconic sequences in Virginia sports history.
“I have no answer for that,” Diakite said when asked if he thinks good fortune is smiling on Virginia. “All I can say is we just kept doing the same thing that Coach [Bennett] has asked us throughout the year. Be focused, work hard, and the result will be good.”
The stars certainly were aligned for the redshirt junior in particular in the region final in Louisville, where Virginia trailed by three in the final seconds and was in dire peril of losing to the Boilermakers.
But after Jerome made the first of two free throws and missed the second off the front rim, Diakite tapped the ball out near midcourt, where Kihei Clark sprinted to gain control.
Clark, a freshman and the smallest player on the court, twirled and delivered a one-handed pass to Diakite, whose eight-footer swished through the basket as the horn sounded to end regulation. Virginia went on to win in overtime, 80-75.
“I was still in disbelief,” said Clark, generously listed at 5-foot-9. “I didn’t think there was any way we could have won that game. It just goes to show you that anything can happen in March.”
The Cavaliers know that all too well, having been on the short end of a 74-54 loss to Maryland Baltimore County last season, marking the first time in tournament history a No. 1 seed has lost to a No. 16.
Echoes of that historic upset reverberated in the first half of this season’s round-of-64 game against No. 16 Gardner-Webb, which led the Cavaliers by six at halftime. Then De’Andre Hunter played like a projected NBA lottery pick in the second half, sparking Virginia to a 71-56 win in Columbia, S.C.
Even though it wasn’t in the NCAA tournament, Hunter is also plenty familiar with catching breaks.
During a regular season game against Louisville on March 1, 2018, Hunter sank a three-pointer off the glass as the buzzer sounded at the end of the second half, delivering the Cavaliers a 67-66 win after they trailed by four points with one second to play.
“It seems like a lot of things have been going our way,” redshirt senior center Jack Salt said. “However you want to look at that, I’m looking forward to playing on Monday. Hopefully whatever that is, it’s still on our side.”