MINNEAPOLIS — One game for the Virginia Cavaliers. Not the one game left to play, but one already lost. The One Shocking Moment that has echoed for more than a year, that echoes even now. But Monday — at long, long, long last — maybe it can be put aside, no matter what happens.
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On March 16, 2018, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a 16 in the men's tournament, getting pummeled by UMBC by 20 points. The Cavaliers received death threats almost immediately after. Police escorted the team bus back to the hotel in Charlotte, and escorted shaken and heartbroken players in a side entrance to their rooms. Since that night, Tony Bennett said he has taken a closer look at faith and family and understood better what they mean, and how they should fit into his life.
Kyle Guy has come forward publicly about his anxiety issues. He also still has the picture from that loss on his cellphone, his wall, and as his Twitter Avatar.
The Cavaliers as a whole say they have learned a new meaning of unity and purpose they otherwise would never have known.
One basketball game played a huge part in all that. And look where it has led.
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“Our story in a way, it is unique,” Bennett said.
Monday night, that one game can finally be put in the history books. Virginia will either will be national champions or it won’t. But the Cavaliers will no longer be in the shadows of one game.
It has been rather remarkable to listen to it all the past few weeks, how often one game, now nearly 13 months old, gets brought up. How its after-affects have lingered, and Virginia’s coping mechanism has been explained, and re-explained, and re-re-explained.
One press conference, Bennett said this . . .
“That was such a pivotal moment and devastating in so many ways, and humbling, that I knew we had to be there for each other in ways we never would have, had that not happened. So it was about sitting together, talking, and just working through stuff and battling through and trusting each other.”
Another session, this . . .
“That situation made me take a look at a lot of things. There’s no way I would have gotten this close to my team. In a way it drew me closer to my family, to my faith. But also, what can we do to be better in certain situations as a team? You think differently. Through any adversity, there’s such wisdom in it.”
On Sunday, the day before the championship game, it was this . . .
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“I knew it was going to be a significant year in all our lives. I knew that going into this year because of what was going to be coming at us because of that from a basketball standpoint. So I just knew we needed each other . . . I knew the light would shine on them and how they responded would have an impact.”
In one press conference here in Minneapolis, Guy went into why he decided to come forward the past year with his anxiety issues . . .
“I didn’t even want to come out about it. I just wanted to stay in myself. My wonderful fiancé said, `maybe you should write it down.' I tried it and it was amazing. It helped her and that’s when I decided, you could help somebody. That’s what I wanted to do. It’s much bigger than basketball for me.”
Sitting in the locker room the other day, he explained one time why he still has that UMBC picture on his cell phone.
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“I feel like when you can remember the tough times you’ve been through and then set a goal to overcome it, and we’ve done that so far, you’ll be better off. I use it as inspiration. I just think it was a life changing moment on and off the court, and I didn’t want to forget it.”
Bennett has told the story several times this week of why he picked Ty Jerome and Guy to go to the post-UMBC press conference. Partly, it was to spare his seniors. Partly, he saw it as a way to get those two started on the road to whatever would come next. The road Virginia hoped to follow up from this Death Valley of a moment. He has repeated his words to them that night.
“That’s going to be one of the hardest things, facing that press conference, but it starts now. It’s going to mark something. You guys need to be up there with me and we need to go through this, and we need to go through the next year together. We need each other.”
On Sunday, 16 hours after he had stood at the line and hit three free throws to push Virginia into the championship game, Guy reflected back on one game . . .
“It was a lot to handle and tackle. First time in history for anything is always hard for whoever’s on the wrong side of it. Obviously the media was insane after the game, we had death threats. When you’re vulnerable, you start letting that stuff in. There was a reconstruction we all went through. To see the growth is monumental.
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"I think we started believing in ourselves since the loss last year in a way that’s different than any other team I’ve been a part of . .. . Everyone has their why, and now we all had the same why. Not every team gets the opportunity to experience hardship like that together. Coach talks about how it made him a better coach, and I’ve said multiple times it made me a better player and better person. We had the same goal in mind and were willing to do anything to obtain it.”
And now there are police around, not looking for threats but keeping crowds back. Guy went back to his room Saturday night not to cope, but to try to sleep with the visions of what he had done still flashing through his mind. How the great journey from UMBC has brought him here, for a different kind of history. What player has ever had to stand in front of so many people with less than a second left and make three win-or-lose free throws?
“I think all of my life has led to this. Everything that I’ve been through made it a lot easier to hone in and knock down those free throws. I said I was terrified. It was a good terrified, though.”
Is that what he thought of, as he tried to sleep?
“It wasn’t so much the free throws, it was before the free throws, looking at my family, looking at 70,000 people looking at me. And then it was after, my teammates rallying around me, and then in the locker room Coach saying 'we’re not done yet.' That’s kind of what was of playing in my head, Pinch me, but we’ve got one more.”
And now, 388 days later, the Virginia Cavaliers have a national championship opportunity before them. Then it will be time to move on, including the pictures that have reminded Kyle Guy every day of March 16, 2018. Late Monday night, he'll have a chore to do. “Win or lose, the Avatar will be changed,” he said. “It’s either going to be heartbreak, or overwhelming joy.”
One game. And now it is nearly over.
“It’s a great story, it is," Bennett said, “I knew it was going to be such an important time in our lives no matter how it played out. And now to sit with them here brings great joy to my heart, because it’s good.”
The Virginia Cavaliers have changed and grown and persevered -- and answered soooo many questions since that one game. Now there is one game left to go. And on the 389th day, they can rest.