It still stings a little. Probably always will.
All those victories, all those visions of a national basketball championship vanished in a haunting flash that evening in Chicago.
Virginia’s 29-8 men's basketball record and No. 1 NCAA tournament seeding, now bittersweet reminders of what might have been, of what almost was in the regional final, one step from the Final Four.
A grand beginning. A gruesome end: Syracuse—68-62.
“Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” coach Tony Bennett, quoting a psalmist, told his team immediately after the harsh defeat. The Cavaliers led by 15 points with less than 10 minutes to play.
“We will have some tough nights,” Bennett said, “because you’re so close you could taste it.”
So close, that is, to savoring Virginia’s third Final Four and its first since 1984.
So close to reaching 30 victories for the third consecutive season.
As it is, 89 Cav victories over three years is a school record.
Let that steep; 89 victories, and two regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference titles, in three seasons. This from a basketball program that, in 14 seasons preceding Bennett’s arrival from Washington State in 2009, had won 20 games just twice.
Under Bennett, the Cavs doubled their victory total—15 his first season to 30—and burnished their stubborn profile as one of the nation’s most deliberate offensive and relentless defensive squads.
The Cavaliers are careful, averaging no more than 10 turnovers the last three seasons, and tempo-controlling. In that same time, they have ranked first or second for fewest points allowed per game, and in the bottom six in fewest possessions per game.
If not a widely popular style, it is seriously efficient, and appreciated in Charlottesville. When the Cavaliers force a shot-clock violation, no arena erupts in a gleeful din like John Paul Jones.
Preaching his “five pillars” belief system of humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness, Bennett finds athletes who fit his formula. Players such as this year’s seniors—Malcolm Brogdon (Col ’15, Batten ’16), Anthony Gill (Col ’15), Mike Tobey (Col ’16), Evan Nolte (Col ’16) and walk-on Caid Kirven (Com ’16)—willing to grind away in the practice gym toward the promise of something greater.
This year, that meant finishing runner-up to national finalist North Carolina in the ACC tournament. Still, on the strength of a schedule that included an early season rout of eventual champion Villanova, UVA earned a No.1 NCAA seeding for the second time in three years.
Virginia entered the madness of March boasting the ACC’s player of the year, Brogdon, whom the Associated Press also named first-team All-American. UVA has had just one other first-teamer; Ralph Sampson Jr. (Col ’83), of course, more than 30 years ago.
This year, the Cavaliers seemed to catch a huge break when in the first round, second-seeded Michigan State, which bounced them from the last two tournaments and again loomed in their path, got bounced instead.
Virginia’s road to the Final Four in Houston became clearer: Hampton, Butler and Iowa State fell. Then on Easter Sunday evening, 10th-seeded Syracuse, an ACC rival, had all but tumbled, too.
Fifteen points up, 9:30 to play.
What happened next had never before happened.
Not to Virginia under Tony Bennett.
In the coach’s seven seasons, the Cavs had never lost a game they led by double digits at halftime. Never.
Trailing Syracuse by six early, the ’Hoos closed the half on a 33-13 run that put them ahead 35-21.
With at least a 10-point intermission lead, UVA had been 68-0, with an average margin of victory of 22 points. In fact, only seven of those 68 contests ever ended with UVA winning by fewer than 10 points.
Which illustrates something else about Bennett’s Cavaliers, besides their humility and unity. They are stone-cold closers.
“We’ve just been trained to be mentally tough,” Brogdon said a couple weeks after the loss. “Coach Bennett prides himself on having the toughest team on the floor. The most mentally tough team will be able to keep a lead and keep executing down the stretch.”
Rules have exceptions, and on this night, the Cavaliers melted in the glare of the moment and the threat of rapidly shifting momentum.
The Orange made seven consecutive shots, two of them long 3-pointers, others uncharacteristically easy drives to the hoop. Syracuse desperately pressed Virginia, and in answer the Cavs made only two shots, missed three layups and lost the ball three times.
In just three minutes and 42 seconds, the Orange erased UVA’s 15-point lead and went ahead by one.
“At that moment, all you’re thinking is, ‘all right, we need one stop,’” Brogdon said. “Get a stop and let’s score. Let’s control the next possession, because that’s all we can really control. It never occurred to us that we would lose the lead and then lose the game.”
There were still nearly six minutes to play, after all. But Syracuse’s onslaught only continued. Eventually trailing by six, UVA managed to close to within two inside the last half-minute, and had a shot to tie the game with 12 seconds left.
It missed. It was over.
“It happens to the best, you tighten up,” Bennett told reporters in mid-April. “I thought we softened up [on defense] when we could’ve buckled down and gotten stops. Against Iowa State, we started wobbling a little bit, but fortunately we hit enough big shots to get ahead.
“When you have a big lead and it starts going like that, it’s tough. Plays need to be made late in a game. But you can’t score real quick against Syracuse’s zone, you have to be patient. And then you feel the clock against you and the pressure of the score. You certainly deal with all of those emotions.”
Point guard London Perrantes (Col ’17), who had 18 points in the game, wore UVA’s failure most openly on his sleeve.
“I’m sure looking back, you’ll see it was obviously successful,” he told reporters after the game, reflecting on UVA’s season. “But right now, I don’t feel that way.”
And yet, the weeping did soon subside.
In early April, the Cavaliers assembled again in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the wedding of Gill and Jenna Jamil. Teammates Brogdon, Perrantes, Devon Hall (Col ’17) and Darius Thompson (Col ’17) served as groomsmen.
But pages turn and stories continue. As Brogdon trains in anticipation of June’s NBA draft, Bennett and his staff plan a new season to meet the program’s heightened standards.
A season expected to be anchored by the leadership of Perrantes, the rising-senior point guard, maturing returners Hall, Thompson, Isaiah Wilkins (Col ’18) and Marial Shayock (Col ’18), and a handful of intriguing newcomers.
Junior transfer Austin Nichols (Col ’17), first team all-American Athletic Conference at Memphis two years ago as a sophomore, is a 6-foot-9 forward who becomes eligible, as is Mamadi Diakite (Col ’19), a redshirt freshman.
Incoming freshman Kyle Guy, a guard from Indianapolis, is UVA’s eleventh McDonald’s All-American and its first in eight years. Recruits Ty Jerome and DeAndre Hunter also were nominated for the same McDonald’s honor.
They all will convene in August for a 10-day trip through Spain, playing five games that will offer a very early glimpse of what excitement, and collective joy, may lie ahead.