LOUISVILLE — The coaching father watched his coaching son stand on a ladder, cutting and tugging at the net. When Tony Bennett completed his first Final Four task, he lifted the braided nylon with both hands and let out a scream that could have been heard from here to Charlottesville.
Dad stopped talking and beamed.
“That’s as much emotion as I’ve seen him show,” Dick Bennett said proudly.
He saw joy, pure and unfiltered. He saw what he had hoped to see when Tony decided to follow him into this wicked profession 20 years ago, what he had feared he wouldn’t see. Despite a wonderful career, Dick always let the anxiety of coaching get the best of him, and he worried the game would also tear apart Tony.
“I didn’t really want him to go into this,” Dad admitted.
But here Tony Bennett was, staring down his demons and taking his father on a vicarious demon-hunting exhibition. Before Tony could relish the greatest moment of his 13 seasons as a head coach, he had to guide his team through a classic Elite Eight overtime game full of steel nerves and feathery shooting. He had to watch Mamadi Diakite send the game into overtime with a one-handed flick to beat the buzzer. He had to bury the historic embarrassment of a loss to Maryland-Baltimore County last season, as well as all the other March letdowns.
Finally, after two hours and 17 minutes of tense basketball, Virginia outlasted Purdue, 80-75, on Saturday to arrive at a defining moment of redemption. As the final 1.3 seconds melted away, as the perception of the program — very good but lacking greatness — dissolved with it, Tony Bennett turned to the orange-clad portion of the crowd, clenched his fists and pumped them. As soon as he pivoted to walk toward Purdue Coach Matt Painter for a handshake, guard Ty Jerome ran into his arms.
The program that got UMBC-ed is going to the Final Four. The first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in NCAA men’s tournament history is the champion of the South Region a year later. It couldn’t have happened without the determination and character of the players and the rock-solid leadership of Bennett amid humiliation.
It was poetic, how they gained from pain. Saturday was also the 10th anniversary of Virginia hiring Bennett. They celebrated with the Cavaliers reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1984.
“I don’t deserve credit,” Bennett said. “I don’t care about credit. I don’t pay attention to that. This isn’t about me.”
Well, yes and no. It took a collective effort to be so brilliant in handling such a comeback. On Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center, in front of a Purdue-dominant crowd and facing the shot-making brilliance of Carsen Edwards, Virginia endured in a way that maybe it couldn’t have if not for the hardships. Edwards scored 42 points and made 10 three-pointers in an enchanting performance, but Virginia played through it. Kyle Guy scored 25 points, breaking out of his shooting slump in the second half. Jerome added 24 points and seven assists. But it was Diakite who saved the Cavaliers.
Virginia was down 70-67 when Painter instructed his team to foul with 5.9 seconds remaining rather than risk Virginia attempting a game-tying three-pointer. Jerome went to the free throw line, made the first and missed the second. The rebound was tipped past half court, but Virginia guard Kihei Clark hunted it down, raced back toward the Cavaliers’ basket and threw a last-second pass to Diakite, who released an 8-footer just in time to tie the game at 70.
It wasn’t easy in overtime, but the Cavaliers weren’t about to ruin their second chance. They exhaled with two seconds left in overtime after Edwards threw away a pass to Ryan Cline. They led 78-75, and after a quick Purdue foul, Clark stepped to the free throw line to ice the game.
After the 5-foot-9 freshman made the first foul shot, he turned to his four teammates standing behind him and gave a how-ya-like-me-now grin. The players — Jerome, Guy, Diakite and De’Andre Hunter — jumped in the air and laughed.
It was the players’ triumph, for certain. But over the past 10 years, it has been Bennett who yo-yoed between the accolades and admonishment as his program suffered through March phobia.
“To be the team that gets him to the Final Four, I think that’s what means the most,” Jerome said. “But he’s believed in every single one of us. He has our best interest at heart, on and off the court. And he’s a great person. To finally quiet the critics feels great.”
The scoreboard indicated it was Virginia versus Purdue, but in a sense, this was Tony versus Tony. A victory would be the high point of his bright and still young coaching career. A loss would be another arrow to the heart, more fuel to criticize his NCAA tournament misfortune. Over the past six seasons, no college basketball coach had accomplished more and received less of a March reward.
Bennett has a 176-36 record in the last six seasons, including four 30-win campaigns, four ACC regular season titles and four No. 1 seeds. But he didn’t have a Final Four to show for it. This was only his second Elite Eight, and the first time, Virginia blew a 16-point second half lead against Syracuse. He had become labeled, somewhat unfairly, as a coach who couldn’t get it done in the Big Dance.
That’s over now, and this breakthrough couldn’t have happened to a coach who handled heartache with more class and integrity.
“I’ve watched him develop,” said Dick Bennett, who won 316 games as a Division I college coach. “He’s gone way past me as a coach. To have that kind of poise in that circumstance last year shows what kind of character he has. It’s something I wished I had.”
For the father, who often chooses not to attend his son’s games because it is too stressful, this game brought back so many difficult memories about the hard part of coaching: the tough losses, the best-laid plans gone awry, the agony of being so close. He felt it all as the game went through 11 ties and 15 lead changes.
“I was facing my own demons,” Dick said. “I had a lot of anxiety. I know the pitfalls.”
On the eve of the Elite Eight, Tony Bennett reflected on his blessed basketball life, and you could make a circle out of his coaching journey. In 1999, he returned home from playing and dabbling in coaching in New Zealand, eager to spend time with his father who was the head coach at Wisconsin. He served as a volunteer manager. It happened to be the season that Dick took the Badgers, as a No. 8 seed, to the Final Four. The team Wisconsin beat in the Elite Eight: Purdue and gruff coaching legend Gene Keady.
During that game, a 30-year-old Tony handed out water bottles and put down stools during timeouts for the players, and he watched two great tacticians spar from the sidelines. Their legacies weren’t confined to NCAA tournament success. Keady didn’t go to a Final Four during his 25 brilliant years leading the Boilermakers. Dick Bennett made it 35 years after getting his start as the freshman coach at West Bend High School in Wisconsin. Yet there was Tony, in awe. And dreaming.
Growing up, Tony observed his Coach Dad, sometimes with great concern, stress and strain to teach the game and pursue the Final Four. He used to worry that, if he went into the profession, it would harm his balanced perspective and quality of life. But his feelings changed in New Zealand, and now he had a front row seat as his father reached the pinnacle of his career. There was no doubt anymore that he had caught a permanent coaching bug.
“Bang, that first year I’m a volunteer manager, he goes to the Final Four,” Tony said. “I’m like, ‘That seems pretty easy and pretty fun. Maybe I’ll get into this coaching thing. I didn’t realize how tough it was.’ ”
Said the father: “Tony is different. He’s more like his mother. Even as a little kid, he had a presence about him. He has a quiet strength and a calm that helps him during the difficult times.”
For the most part, Tony has made coaching look easy. Now he has overcome the Final Four obstacle. As his father waited on the court afterward, the son ran to greet him. The son told reporters playfully, “Get out of the way, man!”
Then he hugged his dad, long and hard.
“Thank you,” the son said.
As Tony Bennett jogged back to be with his team, Dick repeated that “thank you” under his breath. Better than anyone, he understood what his child had accomplished, not just the Final Four but all of it. Amid the celebration, it felt like the coaching grime of two Bennetts had been cleansed.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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