by John Fanta
MINNEAPOLIS — The “first to 50” jokes hit the hay early. The “bad match-up” takes were all for nothing. The “no star players” narrative turned into a showdown of lottery picks.
The 2019 national championship game did the sport’s grandest stage justice, and it shouldn’t be a surprise. Just look at how the Elite Eight round going forward went and the games it produced. It was an all-chalk tournament in the early stages, but the beauty of the sport’s powers clashing late in it was on display. The conclusion was beyond expectations, and capped off a journey we may never see in college basketball again.
Virginia is the national champions for the first time in program history. You may have been fearful to pick them in your bracket or doubted their style working in March, but the Cavaliers completed a journey that epitomized the highs and lows of the Big Dance, and all of sports. From becoming the first 1-seed to lose to a “16” in UMBC last year, to trailing in the final 30 seconds of each of their final three games on the title run and finding ways to win. It was only fitting that the capper featured the dramatics beyond anyone’s dreams in Monday’s high-scoring affair, with the Hoos coming out on top over Texas Tech, 85-77 in overtime.
Two need to tango for an epic title game, and that’s where credit goes to Texas Tech. The Red Raiders encountered not one, yet two double-digit deficits to force overtime.
“The game was everything we thought it would be,” echoed Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard. “I thought it would come down to one last possession, and it did in regulation. I thought it was a great National Championship Game.”
“It appeared, from my standpoint, to be a high-level game,” echoed Virginia head coach Tony Bennett.
The Hoos were powered by a high-level player, one who will hear his name called in the NBA Draft Lottery this summer. After going 5-for-5 from the field in the second half but not getting touches late, De’Andre Hunter wouldn’t be denied of a title. He made the shot of the game, a corner three to even the score at 68 apiece with 14 seconds left that ended up forcing overtime.
“De’Andre usually lets it come, but you saw it in him (tonight),” said Bennett of Hunter, who finished with 27 points to go with nine rebounds. “When he puts that into it, he’s special. We were trying to get him the ball.”
They got it to him in perfect timing, and Hunter’s heroics were the latest for a team of fate. They trailed in the final 30 seconds of regulation in each of their last three games to claim the title, yet won the trio.
“It does feel like destiny,” said Hunter. “Nobody was going through the level of adversity that we were going through last offseason. It felt like we had to win this one. It’s something I dreamt about, and we did it.”
Lottery candidate Jarrett Culver was on the other side, and was held to just 5-of-22 from the field, totaling 15 points.
“I honestly wanted to show I was the better player,” added Hunter.
That blunt quote is a reflection of the way the game was played, two teams going punch for punch in a contest that featured eight ties and as many lead changes.
The prime showcase of the sport gets the cherry on top when looking at Virginia. The NCAA Tournament has two sides, and the Hoos have epitomized both of them in just over a 12-month span. Tournament Most Outstanding Player Kyle Guy, who put up 24 points on 8-of-15 from the field, brought up the journey from the defeat to UMBC on March 16, 2018.
“I think everyone on the team, as soon as the buzzer sounded, we knew we all had the same goal in mind for next year, and that was to win a National Championship,” said Guy. “It’s a really special group because we all had the same ‘why amongst other whys, but to share the same one and to battle everything we battled through and come out on top is a fantastic feeling.”
No one can truly empathize with the Hoos’ journey, and no one could touch their greatness this year, not even a plucky Red Raiders team that left it all on the court.
“Someone wrote that this match-up was going to set the game back,” said Guy. “I think we sprung it forward.”
In this title, though, there is inspiration for handling failure and the dream of achieving greatness coming alive. It’s everything the tournament, and college basketball stands for, and all three Hoos at the podium — Ty Jerome, Hunter and Guy — summed it up with the same line before concluding their press conference.
“Joy is in the competition.”