MINNEAPOLIS — Virginia saved its best for last. If the Cavaliers hadn’t, they would not have won their first national championship Monday night.
Trailing Texas Tech by three early in overtime, Virginia went on an 11-0 run to finally take control and walk away with an 85-77 victory — a score that doesn’t begin to reflect the extraordinary drama of the game.
Again the Cavaliers survived, having trailed a tough and talented Texas Tech team 68-65 with less than 20 seconds to go in regulation. It was a familiar script for a team that will be known forever as the team of redemption.
The way they redeemed themselves was something straight out of a Disney movie — except if you attempted to sell the story line to Disney, you would probably get laughed out of the pitch meeting.
Consider: Team becomes the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA men’s tournament. Not only that, it loses by 20 points, a complete humiliation.
Then it puts together a 29-3 regular season to again become a No. 1 seed. And what happens? It falls behind another No. 16 seed, Gardner-Webb, by 14 points in the first half in its first game of the tournament.
“I remember thinking, ‘We can’t go through this again,’ ” Coach Tony Bennett said last weekend. “At halftime, I told them I could accept losing, but I couldn’t accept anything less than every single thing they had to give.”
The Cavaliers didn’t have to go through it again. They rallied to win. Then they won a routine second-round game against Oklahoma and a tight game against Oregon in the round of 16.
Then began the story even Disney wouldn’t believe.
There was the escape against Purdue in the region final when freshman point guard Kihei Clark miraculously found Mamadi Diakite for the tying jumper at the end of regulation.
Call it The Pass and The Shot. The Cavaliers won in overtime. That was Miracle 1.
Then came Saturday’s national semifinal against Auburn. Virginia led by 10 late and blew the lead. The Tigers led 62-60 when Guy was fouled with less than a second to play. Or maybe he wasn’t fouled. Or maybe Ty Jerome double-dribbled a few seconds earlier. It didn’t matter. Guy coolly made all three free throws, and U-Va. escaped, 63-62.
The Free Throws. Miracle 2.
And then came Monday night. Virginia again had a 10-point lead, but this was a team that did nothing easily. By the time the Red Raiders had taken a 68-65 lead with 22 seconds left in regulation, the Cavaliers had the Red Raiders right where they wanted them.
To lead the Cavaliers was to simply bring out the best in them. U-Va. could have settled for a two-point basket and then fouled quickly. Instead, Jerome drove to the basket, and just when it looked as if he were going to go up for a layup, he flipped a pass to De’Andre Hunter in the corner.
Hunter had been awful in the first half — 1 for 8 — but he was almost perfect after that: 7 for 8 from the field to finish with 27 points. No shot was as big as the three-pointer he drilled from the corner off Jerome’s pass with 12.9 ticks left in regulation.
“We work on that play every day in practice,” Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard said. “Three things: Deny the three-point line, don’t give up an and-one, and get the defensive rebound. It looked like they were going for a quick shot inside, but then there was a really good pass to set Hunter up.”
Texas Tech had one more chance, but Jarrett Culver missed a three. Overtime. The Red Raiders actually led 73-70, but Guy made two free throws and Hunter made a three for the final lead change of the season. Texas Tech was gassed.
This time it was The Three. And, most important, Miracle 3. Job done. Redemption complete.
Before the game began, the NCAA showed the final seconds of N.C. State’s stunning victory over Houston in the 1983 championship game. That team was known as the Cardiac Kids. These will be the Cardiac Cavs.
They were a team that never lost its poise in critical moment after critical moment. U-Va.’s three stars all starred Monday night: Hunter was brilliant throughout the second half — not only with his shooting but his defense, holding Culver to 5-for-22 shooting for the game. Guy, the hero Saturday, finished with 24 points. Jerome had 16 points, six rebounds and eight assists — none bigger than the final one in regulation.
In all, the three pals — all part of Virginia’s 2016 recruiting class — scored 67 of U-Va.’s 85 points.
To say that Texas Tech was a worthy opponent is an understatement. Even with Hunter making life miserable for Culver; even with their best inside player, Tariq Owens, playing on an ankle sprain that needed a pregame cortisone shot, the Red Raiders refused to go away.
Every time Virginia built a working margin, Tech dug in and battled back and had a very real chance to win. Just like Purdue did. Just like Auburn did. In fact, the Red Raiders almost certainly would have won against a lesser team.
A year ago, Villanova made winning the national championship look easy. This year, Virginia made it look almost impossibly hard.
Before this final game, Bennett reminded his players that perhaps no team had ever faced more pressure than the Cavaliers had — especially in the first half of the Gardner-Webb game, when things again looked so bleak.
“All of that is why you’re ready to play on this stage,” he told his team.
Both teams were ready to play on this stage. It took more than 43 minutes of playing time before anyone blinked. It was an extraordinary game with, of course, a fairy-tale finish.
When the clock ran out and the confetti fell, Bennett, a deeply religious man, sat on a stool in Virginia’s bench area, head bowed, giving thanks.
Bennett often quotes the Bible to his players. One of his favorites is, “Don’t grow weary of doing good.”
This Virginia team, almost miraculously, never grew weary. And it did good — historically good.
Perhaps no team has ever done more to deserve a national championship.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/Feinstein.