MINNEAPOLIS — Look at them, those champion Virginia Cavaliers, inadequate no more. They can smile, see. They can dance. They can bounce on an elevated stage, in a supersized venue, during the most precious moment of the final night of the college basketball season.
Look at them, and say it again: those champion Virginia Cavaliers — laughing, pointing to the crowd, revving up the band, lifting the trophy they had to chase through desolation before they could corral it. Look at them, the elite-until-March program reviled in recent years for their NCAA tournament shortcomings, defying us again.
Just when we had grown accustomed to them choking, shrinking and turning their No. 1 seeds into unintentional comedy, they flipped the perception. They turned their entire story into a redemption tale that even imagination doesn’t have the capacity to eclipse.
They won. Like, the whole thing. With an 85-77 overtime victory against Texas Tech in the men’s national championship game Monday night, they tossed the monkey on their backs, their demons and their haters to the rafters of U.S. Bank Stadium. And then white, silver and gold confetti rained on the Cavaliers. If all those lost Marches over the past six years had soiled them, they now bathed in triumph.
In the most incredible turnaround in tournament history, the Team That Lost To A No. 16 Seed last season returned the next year — not angry, not broken but transformed through humility and introspection — and won six straight games to claim the program’s first national title. And the Cavaliers did it in the hardest and most rewarding way possible.
“We knew we were going to bounce back from last year,” said forward De’Andre Hunter, who scored a career-high 27 points. “We achieved our dream.”
These Cavaliers only knew how to play tournament games that make the heart rate surge. They only knew how to survive them, too. They fell behind by 14 points in the first round against Gardner-Webb and flirted with another debacle against a 16 seed. They could have lost to Oregon. They should have lost to Purdue. They beat Auburn, blew it and then atoned in the final seconds. They needed Mamadi Diakite’s quick trigger and Kyle Guy’s dauntless free throw shooting just to get to the season’s final night. Still, against Texas Tech, they had to summon more from themselves.
When a push was needed, Coach Tony Bennett reminded his team: “You guys faced pressure that no team in the history of the game has faced.”
In Texas Tech, Virginia met an opponent just as resilient, just as determined and just as convinced that it could not be denied. For Virginia to survive, Hunter had to hit a game-tying three-pointer with 12.9 seconds remaining in regulation. File it next to Diakite’s shot and Guy’s free throws in the glory folder. On the play, Ty Jerome drove to the basket, saw a clear lane for a layup but spotted Hunter in the corner just before he was about to shoot. Hunter drilled the jumper to knot the score at 68. After a defensive Virginia stand, the game went into overtime.
In the extra period, it was Virginia’s time to be reborn. The Cavaliers are no longer an annual tournament disappointment. They’re the best team in men’s college basketball. No more questioning their style or their nerve. They made 12 straight free throws in those final five minutes to end the drama.
And to think, outside of the Virginia and Texas Tech fandoms, this event didn’t quite qualify as highly anticipated. In some superficial parts of the sports world, it was dreaded. The teams garner respect for their winning, not appreciation for their defense-centric styles. Like many sports, basketball operates under offensive hypnosis. Scoring is cool; not scoring is lame. The backlash against defense and slow pace of play can be over the top, and such broad assessments disregard the game’s many delightful and subtle shades. Nevertheless, the matchup couldn’t shed the preconceived expectation of boredom.
Then the competition began Monday night, and while the play couldn’t be described consistently as pretty, the audience should have learned to enjoy what followers of Virginia and Texas Tech have long been screaming: Greatness has no bias.
The defensive discipline of both teams added to the spectacle. It didn’t minimize it. On every possession, you saw well-schooled players passionately adhering to just about every assignment and defensive detail, hustling to every rotation and competing with incredible effort. It was inspiring whether you were watching the Cavaliers’ clogging pack-line scheme or the Red Raiders’ souped-up matchup zone that attacks, pressures and mixes concepts like few half-court defenses ever have.
The play was rugged, yet riveting. Ultimately, the offenses played at a high enough level to keep from getting trounced. Virginia was aggressive early, with the backcourt tandem of Jerome and Guy countering the Tech defenders with an array of fearless drives, step back jumpers and clever passes to teammates. The Cavaliers led 17-7. The Red Raiders missed their first eight shots and 10 of their first 11.
However, the rest of the first half soon settled into a back and forth display of stunning shot making and ideal balance. The defenses thrived. The offenses countered. After the frigid start, Texas Tech went on an 18-4 run, making five three-pointers during that span, to take a 25-21 lead. As the teams traded blows and Virginia took a 32-29 lead into halftime, the game became a testament to the importance of valuing each offensive possession and having the nerve to make a play whenever a sliver of daylight presented itself. The teams combined for 10 three-pointers before halftime, and you had to appreciate how hard and smart they worked for those buckets.
Before a crowd of 72,062, Virginia and Texas Tech made their point. They’re not great teams that don’t run. They’re great teams, period. Despite all the focus on their defenses, Virginia entered the title game with the nation’s third-best adjusted offensive efficiency. Texas Tech ranked 28th in that category, and over the past two months, the Red Raiders’ offense had been even better than that.
As nicely as they could, they tried to tell us. Both teams wanted to resist being pigeonholed. On the eve of this game, Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard turned truculent for a moment when asked about how his team thrives by playing positionless basketball.
“Offensively or defensively?” Beard wanted to know.
Defensively, of course.
“Yeah,” he grumbled, “I know.”
He laughed, but his message was clear. For those who automatically expected a repeat of the ugly 2011 championship game — Connecticut 53, Butler 41 — um, no, this game was bound to be more compelling. Neither team was going to shoot 18.8 percent like Butler did on that gruesome April night.
“It’s all related,” Beard said. “You can’t have good defense if your offense doesn’t go hand in hand.”
By the end of the night, the fear of the game turning into a slog seemed foolish. It was another heart-pounding reminder of why we love sports. For Virginia, that became the glorious norm in this tournament.
The wait, the pain, had a purpose.
It made the Cavaliers the best team in America. Look at them now, eternally free, finally living in joy.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.