When the Virginia basketball team won the National Championship a year 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 all the games like many fans. I revisited Gardner-Webb, Oklahoma, and Oregon in July. I watched Purdue for the first time in early October.
For a variety of reasons, I had never rewatched the two Final Four games. 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 a pair of thrilling finishes on the sport’s biggest stage.
This week, however, I finally pulled up the replays. I watched the Auburn game on the one-year anniversary Monday. On Wednesday, I watched the Texas Tech replay for the first time. How sweet it still is.
In some ways, it’s still hard to fathom the journey the Virginia men’s basketball team took everyone on in a little more than a year. The historic loss to UMBC provided a gut punch of the highest order as UVA became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. Then the Hoos pulled off the ultimate phoenix act, returning from the devastating loss to reach the pinnacle of their sport.
They delivered the program’s first National Championship with a thrilling run through six games that might have seemed a little hard to believe if it was just the plot for a sports movie. Only it wasn’t. The redemption story is one for the ages and it happened to your team. Unbelievable doesn’t really cover it and it captured the hearts of many beyond the Wahoo nation too.
None of that really changed in a year. The story still resonates. It still stirs up emotions.
It will be hard to forget what it felt like inside U.S. Bank Stadium as the game ended and those streamers shot toward the floor. The collective emotion, the catharsis of that one-year – and longer really – journey to the top of the mountain. The Final Four is big. The National Championship Game is big. The joy and excitement that pours out of a fan base as it realizes the dream of dreams can be felt. And it’s easy to drift back there.
The one thing that jumped out to me the most in rewatching the game for the first time is the difference from being there in person. The emotions of it all is still palpable. You don’t lose that, but you gain the enormity of intimacy.
The television broadcast brings those giant National Championship emotions up close and personal from countless angles. So many of them jumped out while just sitting and enjoying the game as a fan. Subtle little exchanges. Moments of thought. Intensity. Nerves. Joy.
There was De’Andre Hunter coming through the starting lineup announcements last, steely eyed and quickly giving half shoulder bump half hugs to the other starters. There was Hunter screaming out loud after a basket. There was Hunter grabbing a one-handed rebound with force and powering up the shot that fouled out Tariq Owens and just connecting with his bench as they celebrated.
There was Hunter walking in behind his game-tying 3-pointer near the end of regulation like he was a following a putt at a major championship. Then he turned with so much confidence in his reaction to the bench just behind him. It really looked like a ‘I got you’ gait. There was Hunter flinging the ball into the air to celebrate because he had always wanted to do that.
There was Kyle Guy flicking in shots like he was born to do it on that stage. He moved with such purpose and landed with such authority so many times in that game. There was Guy sharing a laugh with an official coming out of a timeout, just barely perceptible on screen but so true to how he played as a Hoo. There was Guy with a look of exasperation? – desperation? disbelief? – after the ball rolled out of bounds with a single second left in regulation. Hunter couldn’t quite cleanly get the defensive rebound, but Guy already had turned to signal for a timeout to the official and the ball just trickled out of bounds. Whatever he was feeling, all Hoos were feeeling. Like after all of this, that’s what is going to stop the magic?
There was Guy walking over to Braxton Key after he blocked the shot to force overtime. That mix of relief and respect for Key coming through in a big moment on the biggest stage. There was Guy along with Ty Jerome turned to plead for a 3-second call early in overtime when a stuck Matt Mooney somehow bounced in a short shot. Those things happen in regular games and the ref beg looks happen too, but not with the same weight. At that moment, it’s easy to forget, overtime had gotten off to a rocky start for the Wahoos as they trailed the Red Raiders, 73-70.
Then there was Guy running around the court in pure jubilation. That’s the one caught on some of the magazine covers.
There was Jerome with that edge that all Wahoos grew to love. There was Jerome screaming out loud after a big shot. There was Jerome giving the big-eyed no-look feed to a screaming and dunking Key. There was Jerome rallying his teammates and their belief with a 3-pointer for the lead just before halftime. The ‘I got you’ look of a leader.
There was Jerome threading needles with the sharp focused look of determination. There was Jerome wearing it all on his sleeve when what had become his patented driving floater didn’t go near the end of regulation, only to get the same play call and make the assist to Hunter that saved the game. And again with a quick shoulder drop when Mooney made the go-ahead 3-pointer early in overtime and the 3-second pleading with Guy, only to drive in the final minute, cut off Mooney’s recovery angle on defense, and draw a foul. He marched toward the bench when it didn’t go down but made both free throws.
There was Mamadi Diakite trying to stay in the moment after he blocked a shot in the final two minutes of overtime. That denied Jarrett Culver just after UVA had taken the lead for a good on another Hunter 3-pointer. Diakite had this mix of business as usual, determination, and appreciation on his face while talking to a teammate. There was Key dunking to seal the win and landing with his arms outstretched as if to say can you believe it? Yes you finally can now!
There were many moments on the other side too. There was Chris Beard looking confident in his group after they erased a slow start. There was Kyler Edwards bobbing his head in the yes motion after a big shot. There was Beard wrapping his arm around Owens when he fouled out and showing clear pride and appreciation for Owens playing on a sprained ankle.
There was Culver turning with confidence and meeting his teammates after he gave his team the lead in the final minute of regulation. The ‘I got you look’ of a determined leader. There was Norense Odiase looking calm and collected at the free throw line, a redshirt senior shooting near 61% looking like a closer. There was someone bolting straight up with celebration when Odiase’s two shots put the Red Raiders up three entering the final 20 seconds.
There was Owens arms spread wide on the sideline to urge a defensive stance after he fouled out. There was Owens welling up beside Odiase when it sank in that the Raiders would lose. There was Brandone Francis, who had an outstanding title game with a team-high 17 points, finally giving in to the moment late in overtime when it became clear that Texas Tech would just miss the title. There was Mooney bent over his knees when it the confetti rained on the other team.
There was Jack Salt sitting on the bench with a giant smile after Hunter tied the game late in regulation. There was Salt encouraging guys on camera cut after camera cut to the bench. There was Kihei Clark with the bottom half of his face buried in a towel, his eyes peering out at a dramatic title game for the ages. There was Grant Kersey in some form of anxious nervousness on the front row behind the bench. There was Marco Anthony dancing. There was Austin Katstra reacting and rooting.
There was Tony Bennett with slightly furrowed brow, a picture of comfortable concentration. There was Bennett calmly leading the huddle late in regulation and exchanging feedback with the players. There was Bennett sharing a hug with his assistants and then walking through confetti with an appreciative smile. There was Brad Soderberg smiling a grand smile.
There were Dick and Anne Bennett embracing tightly with joy when the trophy was won. You couldn’t really see their faces. You didn’t really need to. Joy. Pure joy. Still tangible a year later. Still special for a lifetime.