LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For someone as calm as Tony Bennett appears on the sideline, Saturday night gave him a chance to let loose.
With chants of “To-ny! To-ny!” building throughout the Virginia cheering section, the Virginia head coach climbed the ladder leading to one of the baskets at the KFC Yum! Center and proceeded to make the final snip of the net. He turned toward his players and let loose perhaps the most exuberant shout of his basketball life.
On the 10th anniversary of his hiring at Virginia, Bennett and the Cavaliers finally got over the hump: They were going to the Final Four, outlasting Purdue in overtime, 80-75, in one of the greatest NCAA tournament games of all time.
It’s the first Final Four for the program since 1984, and makes Tony and his father, Dick, just the second father/son duo to reach the Final Four as head coaches.
“I’ve always dreamed of coaching in a Final Four,” Bennett said after the game. “First year I was a volunteer manager for my dad, was the year they went to the Final Four against Purdue in 2000. I remember thinking, I think I want to do this. This seems [easy] — I didn’t realize how hard it was. But to have had the year we’ve had, been 1-seeds and not been able to — been to Elite Eights, Sweet 16s, all those things. But to get to this step, and hopefully beyond, yeah, it feels really good.”
An hour earlier, however, Bennett’s stoic demeanor had once again disappeared momentarily — but that time, it wasn’t out of excitement. It was because another Final Four opportunity for Virginia seemed to be slipping away. Purdue guard Carsen Edwards put up one of the best individual games in NCAA tournament history, scoring 42 points and making 10 3-pointers in a performance that will etch him in the record books for a long time.
And after Edwards made his 10th 3-pointer, a contested bank shot that gave the Boilermakers a two-point lead with 1:08 remaining, Bennett admitted he tore up his play card he keeps in the breast pocket of his sport jacket.
“He made me rip my play card in half,” Bennett said.
Carsen Edwards was not able to carry Purdue into the Final Four on Saturday night — but he did etch his name into the record books.
Chris Beard’s Red Raiders were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll. Now the team that isn’t “supposed to be here” is in their first Final Four.
Edwards’ historic outing looked to be enough to move Purdue to Minneapolis, enough to cap another disappointing March performance for Bennett and Virginia.
The Boilermakers, protecting a three-point lead in the final seconds, fouled Ty Jerome with 5.9 seconds left to send him to the free-throw line for one-and-one. Jerome made the first and missed the second, but Mamadi Diakite tipped the ball out and freshman guard Kihei Clark retrieved it in the backcourt. Instead of forcing up a half-court desperation shot, Clark fired a one-handed 40-foot pass to Diakite, who made a short jumper at the buzzer.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Diakite said. “I just saw the ball coming to me, I made up my mind. You gotta be ready, last shot, make it a good one. And don’t be nervous. I let it go. It went in.”
In overtime, Edwards hit another jumper to give Purdue a one-point lead in the final minute, but De’Andre Hunter responded with a layup and the Cavaliers iced the game with free throws after an errant pass from Edwards prevented Purdue from attempting a game-tying shot.
Mamadi Diakite comes up clutch as he drills a 2-point jumper at the buzzer to send the game to overtime.
Virginia celebrated; the sadness of last season’s shocking first-round loss turned into jubilation. The ultimate redemption story.
“You think of all the guys that came before us and just the teams that were so close and showed you just how difficult it is to get to the Final Four,” Jerome said. “And how many times Coach Bennett has been a 1 seed or a 2 seed and has had so much regular season success? To be the team that gets him to the Final Four, I think that’s what means the most. But he’s believed in every single one of us. He has our best interest at heart, on and off the court. And he’s a great person.”
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Bennett has heard it all. Even if he doesn’t pay attention to the detractors, he knows they exist. The ones that say Bennett’s slow-it-down, grind-it-out style doesn’t work in March, that Virginia doesn’t recruit enough NBA players to get to a Final Four, that Virginia chokes in the NCAA tournament.
And while there are still a few out there — just look at social media — they’re now going to be a little less noisy moving forward.
Bennett won’t say it. But his players will.
“Not only did we silence his critics, we silenced our own,” junior guard Kyle Guy said.
Jay Williams was impressed by Carsen Edwards’ amazing 42-point performance and breaks down expectations for Virginia finally reaching the Final Four.
It was 379 days ago when Virginia suffered the most embarrassing loss in NCAA tournament history, one of the most infamous losses in college basketball history. The Cavaliers became the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed in the NCAA tournament, getting blown out by UMBC, 74-54.
Some coaches would never mention the loss again. Some coaches would bury the tape, chalk it up as a bad day and move on. But Bennett steered into it. He wanted to make sure the program owned it, from him to his staff to the players. They talked about the game as a group, discussed how it happened and how to respond to it moving forward.
He even watched the game three times last offseason.
“It’s really important to deal with it,” Bennett told ESPN back in October. “I think if you just sweep it under the rug and act like it was a fluke or didn’t happen, I think that’s a mistake.”
So within the program, it was a talking point. In the outside world, among media and fans, it was even louder. Opposing fan bases made chants referencing it, Duke even tried to get former UMBC point guard K.J. Maura to attend the Blue Devils’ game against Virginia. Sixteen straight wins to start the season didn’t stop it, nor did Bennett’s fourth ACC regular-season championship in six seasons.
Everyone was waiting for the Virginia from March 16, 2018 to surface again.
“The seed of doubt is always there,” Dick Bennett said after Saturday’s game. “Even in their first-round game, they had to overcome it. … He heard from so many coaches who understood the hollowness you experience in that, and he understood he would face it on most every visiting court that he was on. I think it made them stronger.”
Successfully bouncing back from losing to a 16-seed makes certain challenges just a little bit easier. A 14-point deficit to 16-seed Gardner-Webb in this year’s NCAA tournament turned into a 15-point win; the Cavaliers held Oregon without a field goal for the final five-plus minutes in the Sweet 16; and they overcame a “performance for the ages” from Edwards — and a 10-point first-half deficit — to beat Purdue.
“Nobody understands what we went through last year. Nobody does,” Jerome said. “We stayed together as a team, we even got closer. To go to the Final Four after that is unbelievable.”
They’re not expecting people to forget the UMBC loss, though. Because they haven’t forgotten it.
“The fact that it happened is part of our story,” Bennett said before the season.
And now the story has a new chapter, with a Final Four in Minneapolis.