By John Fanta
MINNEAPOLIS – A year ago, Tony Bennett could not have wanted his worst nightmare to end more. A year later, he can’t stop watching a dream come true.
That dream went from ending just short to resulting in what Virginia fans are already calling “The Shot,” when Mamadi Diakite hit a baby jumper to force overtime with Purdue after a crazy sequence off a missed free throw. The Hoos still feel the magic of that overtime win over the Boilermakers last Saturday night as Final Four week has revved up. And how could they not after making their first Final Four since 1984?
“I marvel at it. Probably three times I’ve watched it,” said Bennett, who complimented the pass Kihei Clark threw to Diakite to allow for a better shot just in time. “Kihei, his instincts, and Mamadi (Diakite) to not drop it, I’m still in awe.”
The Cavaliers are still in awe, and business will call again Saturday when they open the Final Four with Auburn at 6:09 ET. That said, there’s a sense from Virginia that the experiences of the lowest of lows in 2018 to the magic they captured in Louisville have prepared them for college basketball’s grandest stage.
But, how did the initial coping go in 2018 after the stunning, infamous loss to UMBC? Bennett has said his Hoos aren’t in this position without it. One of many examples comes through Bennett and junior guard Ty Jerome, who went to lunch together just a few days after the heartbreak.
“That situation made me take a look at a lot of things,” said Bennett. “You think differently. Though any adversity, there’s such wisdom in it. Those first few months with those guys, it was just we’re going to keep going through it. Everything was intentional in trying to respond in that every moment from that game, through the summer, through the fall, through what we do and approaching it.”
The test on deck for the Cavaliers is against this year’s giant slayer. All Auburn has done is reel off 12 straight wins, eliminate blue bloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in consecutive games, and snatch an SEC Tournament crown. Nobody’s hotter than the Tigers.
But, perhaps no one is closer than the Hoos, who have seen virtually everything one can on both sides of the story in a matter of just over a year. Sure, the loss to the Retrievers will live on forever, but it may be the very reason for Virginia to be at the top of the sport Monday night.
“There’s no way I would have gotten this close to my team in a way (after that loss),” said Bennett.
As a result, Virginia as close as they’ve ever been to its first national title.