When the Virginia basketball team won the National Championship three months ago, I was fortunate enough to be along for the ride. From Columbia to Louisville to Minneapolis, I watched live as the Cavaliers pulled off their historic run to the program’s first title.
Other than a few selected replays and specific situations that I picked out for some follow-up articles back during the run, I hadn’t revisited the games like many fans. I’ve thought about it in the weeks since, but always shifted work elsewhere. I just savored the magic of it all and tried to tell people who asked about it in person what it was like to be on press row when the miracle happened against Purdue or what it was like to be in a stadium surrounded by 72,000 thousand people for an epic title fight.
With summer here and no college sports in play right now, however, I’ve circled back to rewatch the run again and I’ll share some thoughts as I go. So first up, the first weekend in Columbia.
One thing that jumped out about this game is that is sounded much louder in the arena than it did on TV, partially since the GW seating section was adjacent to the media seats. Those folks were loud in person, but it didn’t sound quite as noisy on the broadcast. Still, those fans helped add to the pressure UVA was already feeling as it tried to get past the ghosts of UMBC as the only No. 1 seed to ever lose to a 16 seed.
And, for a big chunk of the first half, those ghosts swirled around in their heads and weighed down the Cavaliers in a major way. As coach Tony Bennett said several times since, the pressure there was real and no one except the coaches and players that were part of it a year prior can really understand what it felt like. The body language down 14 showed that clearly – enough that quite a few Hoo fans were worried.
On rewatch, it essentially felt like Virginia had the accelerator stuck trying to zoom into the face of UMBC narrative.
So with that in mind, the biggest takeaway from this game was despite that growing pressure, UVA didn’t lose character. That happened during the UMBC loss when the Hoos suddenly couldn’t contain dribble drive offense, quit urgently getting back in transition, and couldn’t get stops and then took some out of rhythm shots offensively to make it worse. Against the Bulldogs, however, the team righted itself with an obvious increase in defensive intensity and execution down the stretch in the first half followed by a dominant defensive second half where GW produced just seven made shots with a single made free throw. That created a 16-point swing in offensive output for the underdogs.
Meanwhile, there was some sloppy ‘trying too hard’ play on offense early too. In the first six minutes, there was one stretch where Virginia had 5 straight turnovers with just 5 total shot attempts and the initial response dug an even bigger hole, that 14-point deficit that had nearly everyone a little bit freaked out. Then, the execution sharpened on that end too. Perhaps, most importantly, it was a collective effort and collective response, true to the character.
In fact, almost every player in the rotation made a play on one end of the floor or the other after falling into that potentially naseau-inducing 14-point hole. Ty Jerome made a step-back jumper and then drove for a kickout assist on a Kyle Guy 3-pointer on the two possessions where UVA trailed by 14. Then he notched a steal and drove to earn two free throws when down 12.
With the lead down to 10, Guy dug out an offensive rebound on a missed 3-pointer and got fouled. He made both free throws. Then down 8, he drove and drew a free throw again. In that same stretch, Braxton Key got a defensive deflection and made a hustle play. A moment later, he grabbed an offensive rebound and scored.
The lead eased back to 11 for GW, but more Hoos got in on the response. Trailing by 11, Kihei Clark and Jay Huff connected on a screen-and-roll feed and dunk. Huff then bothered a shot on defense to keep the deficit in single digits, which set up another big shot for Clark. With his defender packing the paint, Clark relocated and hit an international 3 to cut the lead to 6 points ahead of halftime. Mamadi Diakite blocked a shot attempt after an offensive rebound to hold it there at intermission.
Right after halftime, Diakite was involved again with his own offensive rebound. He followed with two other possessions where he got another offensive rebound and scored plus a catch on a roll for a layup. With the lead now down to 4 points, Clark took a charge on defense and Jerome found De’Andre Hunter for a dunk against a zone look. That sequence got UVA’s bench and fans going.
Moments later, Guy forced a turnover on a walk by moving his feet on defense. Clark then hustled to tap away a ball on the baseline and secured the offensive rebound. He then found Hunter for an and-one and Virginia had the lead.
To recap: Jerome, Guy, Clark, Hunter, Diakite, Key, and Huff all made plays to erase a 14-point deficit and push Virginia back in front. Plus, the defensive precision and effort increased to completely turn the tide.
That last bit is a perfect segue to round two in Columbia.
The defensive dominance from the second half of the tournament opener carried through as Virginia absolutely shut down Oklahoma, which averaged 71.3 points per game and put up 95 in their first tourney game against Mississippi. It’s safe to say the shock of playing against little resistance two days earlier was palpable even on replay. Once UVA took away the Sooners’ preferred attack on offense, the frustration never really relinquished even though they remained in touch on the scoreboard thanks mostly to sub-par 3-point shooting from the Hoos.
The defensive show began with Diakite, who was inserted as a starter, smothering Kristian Doolittle in the early minutes. Doolittle couldn’t operate around the basket or in the mid range against Diakite’s length and timing. The Cavaliers altered their hedge defense up top to deal with the pick-and-pop preferences of Brady Manek too and then switched on other coverages at times to keep Oklahoma out of rhythm. The post trap that UVA used much less frequently during the regular season than some seasons cleaned up any potential post mismatches too.
By the time the Sooners found a little traction during a couple of different short-lived spurts in the second half, they were trudging uphill against a double-digit deficit. The Cavaliers led by at least 10 points for the final 19:16 and only a couple of Manek baskets late in the first half to shrink the lead to 9 points kept it from being a double-digit lead for the final 23:45. Oklahoma scored on three straight possessions only once in the game (to keep the deficit at 11 early in the second half) and only scored on back-to-back possessions five times in the game. The Sooners simply had no rhythm and found no way to sustain success offensively.
The numbers ended up telling that exact story. The Sooners shot just 36.4% from 3-point range and 36.5% overall for the game. Oklahoma made 4 of its final 6 shots with the game well in hand to salvage a little bit of the percentage, which stood at 32.6% before the little flurry late. With just 6 offensive rebounds and 6 free throw attempts, plus the Hoos’ 32-12 edge in paint points, it’s clear that the Sooners also created little leverage that put UVA in tricky situations defensively.
The replay reminded me so much of so many classic defensive efforts during the Tony Bennett era. The Hoos took away the top preferences, choked off all easy attempts, and kept coming with the effort defensively. You could see it in the body language too – that sort of out on their feet look that opponents get even though they’re trying to stay in the game. The Sooners looked like someone that had been carrying around heavy luggage all day or something. The TV crew even noted how tough UVA was defensively when Bill Raftery remarked late that “They don’t give up on a play do they?” when De’Andre Hunter got whistled for a foul by playing hard defense and challenging a drive up 13 points in the final 20 seconds.
In other words, vintage Virginia.
This game is one that got lost in the shuffle of the NCAA Tournament run. Understandably so. The drama of the 1-16 repeat in the opener came first and the drama of four late-game finishes, including three all-time incredible endings, followed it. So it’s easy for a ho-hum 12-point win to be forgotten in all of that.
Still, this game fits so nicely with the overall specter that Virginia’s defense has become under Tony Bennett. The Hoos are going to show up and compete on that end of the floor from beginning to end and they’re going to be in almost every game because of it. A lot of nights, it’s simply going to drain the willpower of the other team and lead to solid double-digit wins. It’s great that one of the games symbolically carried that torch in the run to the National Championship.