CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett wasn’t sure what to expect before walking out of the tunnel and onto the field with his players on Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium for a ceremony honoring the national champions.
The Virginia men’s basketball coach later admitted to being stunned by what he saw: An estimated 21,000, according to athletic department officials, had filled part of the lower bowl facing a stage to show their appreciation for the Cavaliers’ march to the pinnacle of college basketball after they beat Texas Tech in overtime, 85-77, on Monday night in Minneapolis.
“I mean, I didn’t know how many people would be there,” Bennett said. “I didn’t think that many, and for them to come to celebrate this with us — we’ve had an amazing run, and just the different celebrations — but to kind of have the culmination and to have it here, and the weather to stay nice, too? It was fitting, right?”
Each member of Virginia’s regular rotation spoke briefly during the ceremony, including standouts De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, who was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player.
A year after the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 men’s seed to fall to a No. 16 in the first round, Guy said the redemption the team experienced still felt surreal.
“I’m not sure it’s going to settle in anytime soon for me,” said Guy, a junior guard who scored 24 points in the win over the Red Raiders and, even more memorably, made three free throws in the closing moments to beat Auburn in the national semifinals. “This is all so crazy. You dream of moments like this. It’s been a little bit chaotic. You’ve got a lot of media requests and whatnot, and you have to stay after class and take photos and stuff. It’s been fun. Obviously it comes with the territory, so I’m just trying to enjoy it all.”
When it was Jerome’s turn to speak, the junior guard hesitated when answering a question about how he would like to be remembered, as if his time at Virginia was just about over.
It’s unclear whether Jerome will declare for the NBA draft, with multiple mock draft websites projecting him as a late-first-round selection.
“One more year!” fans chanted as Jerome acknowledged the crowd.
Hunter, on the other hand, is almost certain to declare for the draft. The sophomore was a projected first-round pick last season, and his stock was only helped by scoring a career-high 27 points, including 22 after halftime, in the national championship game.
“Those decisions will all come with the right information,” Bennett said. “We always want what’s best for our guys, and what this group of young men has brought to me, to our staff, to this university and this community, we’ll all be forever grateful for them.”
As the first rush of fans streamed into the stadium and scrambled to secure seats in the first few rows once the gates opened, the big screen began showing highlights — and there were many — from the Cavaliers’ run to the national championship.
Among those that are sure to become the stuff of legend in Virginia sports history was Hunter’s three-pointer from the right corner off a pass from Jerome to tie the score with 14 seconds left in the national championship game.
One game previous in the national semifinals, Guy drew a foul with six-tenths of second left in the second half while shooting a three-pointer and made the subsequent foul shots for a 63-62 win against Auburn. Moments earlier, Guy had made a three-pointer to draw the Cavaliers within 61-60.
But the footage that generated perhaps the most applause was Mamadi Diakite’s buzzer-beating jumper in the regional final that forced overtime in an 80-75 win against No. 3 seed Purdue.
Seconds before that shot, the junior forward had tapped the ball just beyond midcourt off Jerome’s missed free throw, and Kihei Clark sprinted to gain control. The freshman guard spun and delivered a pass to Diakite, who completed a stunning sequence that instantly became one of the most replayed of the tournament.
Some fans at Saturday’s ceremony wore T-shirts commemorating that improbable series of events that read: “The Tip. The Pass. The Shot. The Play.”
The scene was reminiscent of a football Saturday, with Cavaliers supporters clad in orange and blue began lining up outside Scott Stadium hours before the gates opened. Others tailgated in the parking lots.
Vendors sold national championship gear and other memorabilia from the historic season. The $35 price tag for one of the more popular T-shirt designs didn’t deter hundreds of eager patrons.
“I believe that sports brings people together, all kinds of people,” Virginia Athletic Director Carla Williams told the crowd. “This team, our coaches, our players have been a unifying force not just for the athletic department, not just for the university, not just for Charlottesville but the Commonwealth of Virginia, and for that I am thankful.”