MINNEAPOLIS — Down by one in the final minute with their opponent at the line, Virginia had Texas Tech right where they wanted them.
For a third straight game, the Cavaliers overcame overwhelming odds in regulation to either win or send the game to overtime. For the third straight game, they had a new hero knocking down the iconic shot. And for the first time ever, they were crowned national champions with an 85-77 overtime victory over the Red Raiders of Texas Tech.
“Some people say it’s luck,” said freshman Kihei Clark, “but we really prepare as a team, and the coaching staff really does a good job of helping us prepare for those moments.”
Without Mamadi Diakite’s game-tying shot in the Elite Eight against Purdue — a true buzzer-beater — there would have been no Final Four for Virginia. Clark’s mad dash to the backcourt to claim an offensive rebound, coupled with his savvy pass to Diakite, whose mid-range prayer knotted the game, was assumed to be the tournament-defining play if Virginia went on to win a title.
Then Kyle Guy happened. Without his six-points-in-six-seconds stunt in the national semi-final against Auburn, there is no championship game. Guy hit a corner 3 to pull Virginia within one, then drew a foul from the opposite corner on a 3-point attempt and won the game for the Cavaliers with three free throws under indescribable pressure.
De’Andre Hunter was Monday’s man of the hour. He picked a decent game for his career-high 27 points. Hunter hit 4 of 5 3-pointers, including a game-tying flick with 12 seconds remaining in the same corner from which Guy drilled his shot two nights prior. Then Hunter struck again from distance in overtime to give Virginia a 75-73 lead that it would ride all the way the final buzzer.
“We have different guys stepping up at different moments, and that’s just huge for us,” said Diakite, who wouldn’t opine on which of the three memorable shots was the best of the tourney. “It’s not a one-man team type of team. We all play together, and that’s what we’ve been doing throughout the season, and it paid off.”
Hunter is a sophomore likely destined for the NBA. Guy is a junior who may be a four-year player. Diakite is a junior role player not known for his scoring. These three diverse players all got to wear the white hat for the Cavaliers in their improbable tournament run — an indirect knock on the narrative that programs need one-and-done talent to win titles.
“It just shows the depth we have,” said Hunter. “We have confidence in all the guys. Mamadi made a big shot, Kyle made a big shot, I made a big shot. Any given night it was someone else who could hit a big shot. When someone’s down, someone else steps up, and that’s been happening all year and it just showed in the tournament.”
Some were calling Virginia’s last two games the most exciting events to take place in U.S. Bank Stadium since the Minneapolis Miracle when the Vikings beat the New Orleans Saints on a last-ditch play to advance to the NFC Championship Game in early 2018. Unlike the Vikings, who lost the following week, Virginia never blinked twice at its own histrionics.
After their win against Auburn, the locker room was notably calm. There was no celebration. Not yet.
“We hadn’t reached our end-goal yet,” said point guard Ty Jerome. “When you step onto that court, I’m pretty sure it’s almost impossible to think about last game, especially playing against a team like Texas Tech.”
“[Coach Tony Bennett] has done such a good job this year of doing that,” Diakite said of the team keeping its composure. “He didn’t have to tell us that every time. We just knew what we were supposed to do.”
He paused and grinned.
“We’re pretty mature.”
Bennett instituted a system at Virginia built around stifling defense and efficient offense, and like most successful systems it thrives on continuity. That’s shaped the way he’s recruited and made Virginia one of the country’s winningest programs. The Cavaliers’ postseason failures, though, had made them a punchline as the poster-child for (quote-unquote) boring basketball.
But nobody’s joking now.
It was the Cavaliers’ offensive execution that won them three straight games down the stretch and earned them a rendition of “One Shining Moment.”
“When you guys play the right way, the collectiveness of it takes over,” Bennett told his players. “I’ve watched it, and I’ve stepped back and I’ve seen them mature through everything. For them to do what they did, and how they’ve won, it’s a great story. It really is.”