Predictably, sleep wasn’t on anyone’s agenda Monday night/Tuesday morning. Living the moment, as remarkable as any could be, was.
So when the University of Virginia’s national champions arrived home a little on the groggy side, they were taken aback by the welcome. It began with a fire-hose salute at the airport and ended with a few thousand of their closest friends outside John Paul Jones Arena.
“I guess this really happened,” U.Va. coach Tony Bennett said to the adoring crowd. “We won the national championship!”
They sure did. Fifty-five weeks after that embarrassing first-round loss to UMBC, the Cavaliers defeated Texas Tech 85-77 Monday night in the NCAA final. It’s already being called one of the greatest, if not the greatest, redemption stories in sports history.
If it wasn’t already, the community fell in love with this team for how it handled that bitter disappointment last March. Which made what happened Monday night in Minneapolis not just a routine championship.
After Virginia’s plane landed at Charlottesville Albemarle Airport, fire trucks sprayed water in an arch above the team bus as it drove away. When the Cavaliers arrived at JPJ, some 3,000 fans (a police estimate) cheered with whatever lung capacity they had left after Monday night.
“I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet,” Bennett said. “But when we were driving here, and the fans along the road (showed) what it means to them, that’s one of the good things about sports — how it brings a community together.
“Everybody wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and this has been remarkable. It is an amazing story. … This community has embraced our guys and what they represent. And to be able to bring them joy is as good as it gets.”
It sounds like fiction — from the most humiliating loss in NCAA tournament history one year to a national championship the next. In their final three games, the Cavaliers trailed by at least three points in the final 20 seconds of regulation. Yet, somehow, they pulled each out.
“I don’t think Hollywood could have done a better job than the way it ended,” Final Four Most Outstanding Player Kyle Guy said.
Maybe some producer will give it a try. If so, according to Bennett, assistant coach Jason Williford wants Will Smith to play him.
Bennett swears he never envisioned what it would feel like to win a national championship, but if he had, reality no doubt would have been better. One of his favorite moment came when U.Va. alums Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, and Devon Hall joined the celebration in the locker room.
“They came in with our guys and put their arms around each other,” Bennett said. “I said, ‘Remember this moment and please don’t change. Remain as humble and thankful for what took place and enjoy it.’