A year after feeling like Mike Tyson being knocked out by Buster Douglas in the biggest upset in boxing history, Tony Bennett and his University of Virginia basketball players got a chance to feel like Rocky in that movie poster that hangs in the coach’s office.
Arms raised exultantly on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Gonna fly now. From the depths of Death Valley to the peak of Everest. What a redemptive flight it had been.
Virginia reached the summit Monday night with a stirring 85-77 overtime victory against Texas Tech in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game. And as I watched Bennett cut down the net, I couldn’t help but think about how close the Cavaliers had come to repeating the humiliating history of last year’s tournament, when they were upset by the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
Still haunted about becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, they appeared destined for another monumentally embarrassing plunge last month after falling behind Gardner-Webb by 14 points with 6:32 remaining in the first half of this year’s tournament opening round game. At that point, I received a text from a friend saying Bennett should be fired if Virginia, the top seed in the Midwest Region, were to suffer another upset loss to a 16th seed.
This time, though, the Cavaliers got over the mental hump and went on a 23-3 second-half run to beat their pesky opponents by 15 points. They would have three more close calls, against Purdue in the Elite Eight, Auburn in the semifinals and Tech in the finals, but would persevere to win the first national basketball title in school history.
And, by doing so, they solidified something that was already common knowledge in college basketball circles: Bennett is a Hall-of-Fame caliber coach, and an even better person.
Iconic singer Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. The basketball coach of the same name had his broken in Charlotte, N.C.—site of last year’s South Region opening round. It was a devastating blow, but Bennett the basketball coach wowed everyone with the grace and class he displayed in the upset’s aftermath. Unlike many of his peers, Bennett is a person who’s able to keep things in perspective. The loss against 20-point underdog UMBC by 20 points was crushing, but there were lessons to be learned from it, as painful as they might be.
Throughout this season, there would be no escaping questions of what happened last year. The past would dog the present. Bennett knew this, and he told his players they’d be better off dealing with it than avoiding it.
“We embraced it,’’ said De’Andre Hunter after scoring a championship game-high 27 points for Virginia. “We didn’t run away from it. We just answered all those questions, all the media who questioned our team. We just did what we had to do.”
And, he added, they wouldn’t have been able to do it with any other coach.
Bennett told them before Monday night’s game that “you’re never alone in the hills and the valleys.” Afterward, he made reference to the Rocky poster that hangs in his office, the one showing Sylvester Stallone’s ultimate underdog character standing triumphantly at the top of those steps in Philly.
“I told (the players) that I just want a chance at a title fight one day,’’ he said. “That’s all we want.”
They got what they wanted Monday night, and took their share of punches before prevailing. And all the scar tissue they had developed from the year before became a part of their championship narrative.
“Does it go away completely?’’ Bennett asked out loud. “No. I wish it wouldn’t have happened in some ways. Now, I say, ‘Well it bought us a ticket here. So be it.’ I’m thankful in a way for what happened (last year). It drew me closer, most importantly, to my faith in the Lord, drew me closer to my wife and children, just because you realize what’s unconditional. In those spots when the world’s telling you you’re a failure, you’re a loser, and you’re the worst thing going and all that stuff, you say, ‘OK, what really matters?’ ’’
Clearly, what matters most to him is his faith, family and friends. But that’s not to say this son of a basketball coach isn’t driven to win. He is, and has done so at a clip in recent years that has exceeded legendary Atlantic Coast Conference peers Mike Kryzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim. And now he has a national championship on his coaching resume, just like they do. He and Virginia basketball overcame the odds and wound up writing a Rocky-like story of perseverance.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.