Minneapolis, Minnesota: The redemption story is complete. A year after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in the NCAA tournament, Virginia has become a national champion for the first time in school history.
The Cavaliers needed overtime to complete a 85-77 victory against Texas Tech — De’Andre Hunter’s 3-pointer with just more than two minutes left finally gave them the lead for good, and they pulled away.
But in the end, the victory provided the ultimate validation for coach Tony Bennett’s style — defense-first, coupled with deliberate offense, which had led the Cavaliers to plenty of success (including four of the last six ACC regular-season championships) but questions about whether the approach would ever work during the NCAA tournament.
The matchup of college basketball’s best defensive teams had been panned by some leading into Monday night. But after a very slow start, it turned into a gem, with Virginia and Texas Tech trading punches — and then in the final minutes of regulation and right into overtime, giant haymakers.
It was the first overtime in the national championship game since Kansas beat Memphis in 2008, and given Virginia’s path through the NCAA tournament, it seemed fitting. Given their path since last year’s disappointment, cutting down the nets seemed fitting, too.
During the year since that stunning first-round exit, the Cavaliers were asked countless times about UMBC — and that’s just counting the various interviews conducted in Minneapolis. At virtually every road game this season, opposing fans chanted “U-M-B-C! U-M-B-C!” and reminded them of the loss.
“It goes from stunned in Charlotte to redeemed in Minneapolis.”
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 9, 2019
Through it all, Virginia’s players and coaches remained publicly consistent, appearing to embrace lessons learned in the disappointment. They said they’d become better basketball players and people because of it.
Now, they’ve become national champions — and the formula was extremely familiar. Against an opponent that was in many ways its mirror image, at least in playing style, Virginia’s relentless defense and grinding offense proved just barely superior.
De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome led the Cavaliers, scoring 67 of their points. But as usual, the defense did it, making Texas Tech strain for virtually every point. Jarrett Culver, the Red Raiders’ best player, scored 15 points but was only 5-of-22 shooting, hounded on most possessions by Hunter. Even so, the Red Raiders twice fell behind by 10 points and climbed all the way back into the lead with timely 3-pointers.
Jarrett Culver’s layup on a spinning drive with 35.1 seconds left in regulation gave Texas Tech a 66-65 lead, and Norense Odiase, a 62 percent foul shooter, hit two free throws with 22.5 seconds left. But Hunter tied it with a 3-pointer from the corner with 12.9 seconds left.
Culver missed a 3-pointer, but the ball skittered out of bounds and the Red Raiders retained possession with one second left — but Culver’s final shot was blocked by Braxton Key, sending the game into overtime.
It was nothing new for Virginia, which arrived Monday night after two miraculous escapes, beating Purdue in overtime in the South Region final after improbably forcing overtime in a wild sequence, then dropping Auburn in a controversial finish when Guy hit three free throws with 0.6 seconds left.
“I told them, I just want a chance at a title fight one day.” ✊
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 9, 2019
That win came after trailing by four points with 17 seconds left, and only after officials missed a double-dribble by Jerome as he charged up court in the final seconds.
The Cavaliers’ victory denied Texas Tech its first national championship as the Red Raiders’ improbable journey fell just short. After losing five of their top six scorers from a team that reached the Elite Eight a year ago, they were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12. Instead, they won the league — and then nearly won it all.
Red Raiders coach Chris Beard’s style — defense-first, coupled with deliberate offense that worked not for good shots, but for great ones — required buy-in from a diverse group, including several key pieces who didn’t arrive in Lubbock until last August. They came together in with the understanding they would have to play harder than probably any of them ever had, at least for a sustained period of time, and to play together to make the defensive strategy work.
Texas Tech’s defense is designed to keep the ball out of the lane and to funnel it toward the sideline, where other defenders wait to help. During the stretch run, the Red Raiders might have played it as well as any team in recent memory.
Perhaps as important: Beard taught the Red Raiders to treat every possession as though it was their last. He called it “March basketball,” and it worked very well in April, too.
But Monday night, Virginia won the battle of mirror images.
Virginia led 32-29 at halftime. After a slow start by both teams, Virginia surged to a 17-7 lead midway through the first half before Texas Tech, which had missed its first eight shots, went on an 18-4 run. The Red Raiders hit three consecutive 3-pointers — reserve guard Brandone Francis hit two — to get back in it. Davide Moretti’s 3 tied it at 19.
At that point, all four of the Red Raiders’ field goals were 3-pointers. Texas Tech’s first two-point bucket came on a Tariq Owens dunk with 6:38 left in the first half, courtesy of a pass from Culver.
The offense picked up from there (though play was stopped with 4:40 left to pick up a tortilla, likely thrown by a Texas Tech fan following a quirky tradition). Jerome’s 3-pointer with two seconds left gave Virginia a three-point halftime edge.
Virginia had won 61 consecutive games when leading at halftime, the longest active streak in Division I hoops.