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Virginia Basketball – A Lesson in Four Miracles

Overwhelming Joy – Virginia Guard Kyle Guy celebrates the Cavalier’s extraordinary victory in Monday’s National Title game. (AP Photo.)

Don’t believe in miracles? Well, if you’re a Virginia fan you got one last night. The Cardiac Cavs stayed true to form by allowing the clock to go down to the last 12.3 seconds of regulation before De’Andre Hunter drained a perfectly stroked 3 pointer from the corner to propel the game into overtime.

The rest, as they say, is “history” – the kind that would run you out of Hollywood if you actually tried to write it.

But there is even more to the story. Yes, even THAT story – the one that everyone already knows – about how Virginia was taken down by “lowly” University of Maryland Baltimore County before coming back to somehow accomplish the impossible. Make that the absolutely WAY, WAY incredibly impossible – winning a National Championship exactly 55 weeks later.

But let’s start there and ask a question (before we go back a bit further): What was the reality of that loss?

The “Retrievers” (as in Golden like the “dog” they were supposed to be) weren’t just a 16 seed – they were one of the LOWEST rated 16 seeds in decades. A team that was only in the tournament because of a bolt of long-shot lightning that struck in the “America East” conference title game, wherein UMBC grad-student Jarius Lyles drained a 23-footer with 0.6 seconds left to give the Retrievers a wild come-from-behind 65-62 victory over top-seeded Vermont. A team that had thumped them in the regular season by a score of 81-53. (That’s one bucket shy of 30 points.)

Yup, that’s right – the Retrievers lost by similar margins all year long to powerhouses like Colgate, University of Albany, Towson, and University of Stony Brook.

But here they were . . .  As the lowest ranked team in the tournament, ready to play one of the strongest number one seeds ever. A Virginia team that had gone 31-2 coming into the game and had won both the regular season AND ACC tournament titles. To understand how “good” this team had been consider that Virginia also held the number one national ranking through the last TEN WEEKS of the regular season and became the first ACC team to win 17 conference games – a feat never accomplished by blue-bloods Duke and UNC.

And there THEY summarily went . . . Stunned – stoned to death really – by an onslaught of hustle, three pointers and just plain WILL –  that left Virginia reeling emotionally, physically and yes, even spiritually. After all, the team was built on a bedrock of faith – one substantiated by Tony Bennett’s biblically-derived “Five Pillars” that were posted on the locker room wall and stressed by the coaching staff daily: Humility, Passion, Unity, Servanthood and Thankfulness.

But thankfulness wasn’t exactly what they were feeling.

Harshly to the contrary. Their questions would have likely been ours: Why had God abandoned them to such utter humiliation? What had they done to deserve such a fate? To be forever enshrined as the biggest losers in their sport – and maybe ALL sport – as the first number one ranked NCAA basketball team to EVER lose to a number 16 seed. And not by some wild buzzer beater on a sleepy off night – but by a whopping 20-point margin. This wasn’t so much an upset as it was – to quote a family member – an “old-fashioned back alley ass-whipping.”

Something had been exposed and beneath that deep wound was a nerve that was just about as raw and painful as it gets. Star guard Kyle Guy seemed to endure the worst of it. Even suffering from an onslaught of heretofore unexperienced anxiety attacks – something that he openly shared publicly as he battled to get his feet back under him.

One thing was certain – in the beginning this team wasn’t just beaten, it was decimated.

Now on to the first “miracle” that no one is talking about – the one that lead to the teams utter humiliation at the hands of UMBC.  The one that came just two weeks before on March 1st 2018 at the “KFC YUM Center” in Louisville Kentucky. Perhaps the most “miraculous” of all of the extraordinary endings. I mean how can a team score 5 points in 2.1 seconds? Pundits would tell you it just can’t happen. But it did.

Miracle #1: The setting: 2018 – the next to the last game of the regular season. UVA vs. Louisville with the aforementioned  2.1 seconds on the clock. Louisville has just scored and has a 4 point lead (66-62) and all the Cardinals have to do now is allow the Cavaliers to score. Louisville coach David Padgett has signaled as much from the sideline, standing with his arms raised up in the universal signal that says: “Do anything you want – BUT DO NOT FOUL!!”

Ty Jerome rises for a 3-point attempt and Louisville freshman Darius Perry inexplicably takes a swipe at him. “TWEEEEEEET!” the ref hammers the whistle with 0.9 seconds remaining as the shot falls short. But as dumb as the play was it shouldn’t actually matter as there’s simply not enough time remaining to score twice. Jerome makes the first two free throws to cut the deficit to 64-62. Virginia’s hope is for him to miss the third intentionally and for someone to somehow tip in the miss for a tie within 0.9 seconds but alas, Mamadi Diakite is whistled for entering the lane too soon.

Oh vey, game over – it was a long shot anyway.

But not really.

With the same 9/10 of a second still on the clock the Louisville in-bounder motions to a teammate to expect a deep pass. That way, even if Virginia intercepts, it’s an impossible shot. Meanwhile, from the sideline, Bennett reminds the official that it’s a “spot throw-in,” meaning the passer can’t run the baseline. But closely guarded by Hunter, he hesitates before doing just that, turning the ball back over to the Cavaliers. So as it turns out Diakite’s lane violation was the best thing to happen to Virginia. (Well maybe, but we’ll talk about that later . . .)

As officials confer at the scorer’s table, assistant coach Jason Williford and Tony Bennett gather the team and diagram a play. Jerome is inbounding from under his own basket. Ball screens set up by Hunter for either Isaiah Wilkins or Kyle Guy fail to break a shooter into the open so Hunter steps back behind the 3 point line after setting the screen. The Louisville player guarding him pauses for half a beat. That’s all it takes. Jerome passes to Hunter on the left wing. His hurried 3-point prayer bounces off the backboard and goes in as the buzzer blares. Bennett hugs assistant coach Ron Sanchez while the team buries Hunter in a dog-pile on the court. “A bank!!!” the radio announcer screams. “It’s open late!! Virginia wins!! Number 1 and holding!! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?!!!”

Most people can’t.

But “number 1 and holding” indeed. In lieu of falling slightly in the polls the Cavs will now proceed through the ACC Tournament and become the “Number one, number 1 seed” in the upcoming NCAA tourney. And of course in doing so, they just lined themselves up to meet the red-hot believers and soon to be “Golden” Retrievers of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

So yeah, be careful what you wish for  . . .

Or not? Would Virginia have made it to the Final to become the 2019 National Champions without the UMBC loss (I don’t think so), that in all probability wouldn’t have happened without the stunning miracle win against Louisville?

It’s a little confusing isn’t it. Which is, of course, life. In the end perhaps the message is Trust – come what, come what may.

Miracle Number 2: “The Pass” (by Kihai Clark) that leads to “The Shot” (by Mamadi Diakite) with less than 2 tenths of a second on the clock that forces overtime against Purdue. UVA goes on to somehow win in spite of a super human effort by Boilermaker Carson Edwards who shoots 10 of 19 from beyond the arc on his way to a record setting 42 points. ESPN pundit Tony Kornheiser proclaims that “viewers won’t see such a play for another 30 years.” His talk-show partner Michael Wilbon calls it the most unbelievable play he has seen in his lifetime. As the ball drops through the basket the players (and coach Bennett) appear to be stunned beyond belief themselves. Diakite looks around the arena like he’s under anesthesia. Maybe he is. The location? The “KFC YUM Center” in Louisville Kentucky.” Imagine that.

Miracle Number 3:  The NCAA semifinals. Auburn claws its way back from a 10 point deficit to take (another) 4 point lead (61-57) with 17 seconds left and the Cavs looking absolutely cooked. But Guy finesses a clutch 3-pointer from deep in the corner with only nine seconds left. Virginia quickly fouls and Auburn’s Jared Harper makes just one of two foul shots with seven seconds to go.

Great drama ensues.

Officials miss both a foul that causes Jerome to double dribble and the resulting infraction as well. Virginia in-bounds the ball with just 1.5 seconds on the clock and Guy launches a 3-point shot just ahead of the buzzer from the opposite corner. The shot barely misses but he is clearly fouled.

Suddenly everyone familiar with the program is taking a collective gulp. Here is our beloved, fun-loving – yet sometimes fragile guard – facing three shots to either win, tie or LOSE the opportunity to go to the National Title Game. Hundreds of thousands of prayers ascend in support of (and surely in equal measure against) him. As Kyle prepares for the first shot an Auburn player mocks him from behind by holding his throat and pretending to choke himself.

No problem.

With 6 tenths of a second on the clock Kyle Guy stands there before 72,000 people and a world-wide TV audience of millions with everything on the line and summarily knocks down each shot – boom, boom . . .  BOOM – as though the only people that might be watching are the neighbors across the street. Maybe they were.

Miracle 4: The Monday night finale. Winner take all – and for Virginia perhaps something more hung in the balance. After 39 minutes and 38 seconds of play with 22 seconds on the clock Texas Tech’s Norense Odiase makes two foul shots with 22 seconds left to give the Red Raiders a 68-65 lead. But this is Virginia and the proverbial “Fat Lady” better be well into her second stanza before you count them out.

Ty Jerome brings the ball down the court and immediately makes a strong move down the left side of the lane towards the bucket, drawing a host of Tech players towards him. One of his favorite shots (left lane bank) is still there but Jerome knows his team needs 3 more points. The clock is ticking 15,14,13 . . . at the last possible moment he lofts a pass to De’Andre Hunter who has taken up a position on the opposite perimeter. He has time – which seems to stop – as Hunter calmly measures . . . elevates . . . and shoots.

Nothing but net.

Virginia is heading to its second overtime in as many games.

You know the rest. Hunter shines some more and the team goes 14 of 14 from the line and tucks away its first ever National Basketball Championship exactly 388 days after falling in the first round as the first number one seed to ever do so.

Three observations from a rogue minister who can’t help but consider such things:

1.) No one likes, or wants to LOSE, or be defeated – much less humiliated in the process. In fact, we tend to think of the word “humiliation” as something wholly negative. Yet, it is through just such moments that we are forced to consider our lives / values more completely and through which true humility (the kind we value so highly) is born. A process wherein human beings can be brought low to surrendering to the possibility (and ultimately the reality) that apart from our Loving Creator we are nothing.

That can be a tough idea to swallow – but apart from His love and grace we are “worms” as C.S Lewis referred to us – or, at our best, “slobs” in the vernacular of the more modern Frederick Buechner. Such an understanding forms the basis of Neo-orthodoxy and is part of the process of a massive spiritual transformation that is “dying to the self” and living to the Glory of God. He can do it – but we have to let him – and that’s where the tough lessons in humility come in.

I think Tony Bennett (and many if not most of his staff and players) would support that statement. If not, I am sure he will tell me : ).

2.) Life – as it’s meant to be – requires a genuine Trust in God. That is putting ALL things / outcomes in His hands (while doing one’s absolute best). Such “Trust” is a step beyond “faith” (a word that seems to imply a certain element of “not really knowing”). Or perhaps better put: Faith fully and passionately lived out IS complete Trust and provides for possibilities that are otherwise simply not available.

This kind of “all in” Trust (exemplified by Bennett and his team) allows room for the Spirit to work and is part of the “Truth” of existence. There is no other way. Consider the power of the team “owning” their bitter defeat and trusting that it could and would somehow work for the good. Not necessarily in a National Title – but possibly so, if they willed and worked their way in that direction – and who knows what other, perhaps far more important personal ways.

  1. God often works in the most paradoxically confounding ways – and seems to leave his markers (whispers as I call them) all along the way. After all, WHO could have foreseen that the first miracle at the (sadly named) “KFC YUM Center” would lead to the “devastating” (at the time) loss in Columbia S.C. just two short weeks later. And who could have imagined that Virginia would return to the scene of that “crime” (in Columbia) one year later to fall behind to yet ANOTHER number 16 team (Gardner Webb) by a similar margin, before digging deep and coming back to win.  SETTING UP their ultimate path the following week BACK through the “YUM Center” on their way to a National Championship? All the while allowing for: Jerome (the steady consistent presence throughout) and Clark / Diakite (the miracle workers that landed them in the Final Four) and Guy (the stalwart story-book Hero of the semi-final) and finally Hunter (the ultimate “closer” in the Championship) TO ALL DO THEIR PART.

Which is what we are, of course, ALL called to do – no matter the workings of our days. Because Our Loving Heavenly Father will ALWAYS do His.

So, congratulations to Tony Bennett and the boys – may we too learn to be careful what we wish for . . . and Trusting of what we don’t.

Stuart Revercomb

Want to consider Tony Bennett’s First Pillar further? Click HERE.

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