‘The Road Ends Here’ For Bennett And The ‘Hoos

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo courtesy UVA Sports Media Relations | Jim Daves

MINNEAPOLIS — When Virginia’s basketball team arrived in Minneapolis a few days ago, each person was presented a boat paddle emblazoned with the message: “The Road Ends Here.”

Those words immediately impacted Tony Bennett, conjuring up memories of a team-bonding whitewater rafting trip the Cavaliers had taken in late summer on the New River.

“It’s one of the oldest rivers, they say, in the world, and I remember floating down the river, and I remember saying to myself, ‘All right, Lord, what’s this year going to bring?’ I wonder,” Bennett said.

What it has brought is Virginia’s first trip to the Final Four since 1984, and its first appearance ever in the national championship game, Monday night against Texas Tech, another program that’s never played for the title.

Bennett has used that trip through the wilds of West Virginia a couple of times this year as inspiration to his team as he so often does. Before the Purdue game in the Elite Eight, he reminded them of their rafting trip.

“I told the team, and I actually got a little emotional with them, I said, ‘Here we are.’ This was on the verge of the Elite Eight game, it’s a significant year, what’s this year going to bring?” Bennett told media at the last Final Four press conference Sunday.

He thought it was rather ironic that when the team got to Minneapolis, the first thing the team is given were the paddles or oars that said “The Road Ends Here.”

“It was kind of a significant or poignant moment for me,” Bennett said.

The Virginia coach is big on inspirational themes for his team, teaching them life-lessons that will last long after basketball is gone. He has used TED Talks, “Friday Night Lights,” other messages from books and movies, Bible verses, personal experiences.

What will his talk to the team Monday be based on?

“We’ll think of something, but as I said, it will be a joy to get ready for this game,” Bennett said.

All of that has come in handy ever since the nightmarish end of last season. Everywhere Virginia has gone since last March, it has been confronted with questions ad nauseam. That curiosity from national media has multiplied with each round the Cavaliers have advanced.

Certainly Kyle Guy has received the brunt of the questions, which is only natural because of his well-publicized anxiety issues and how he addressed, embraced that defeat to UMBC rather than running from it as therapy.

His avatar on his Twitter, his screensaver on his phone bear the pain of last March. The photo of him on his knees, crying, while UMBC celebrates in the background, has been a daily reminder of his anguish, his team’s sorrow. There’s also a sports page similar hanging on the wall of his apartment.

Guy hasn’t wanted to forget. He’s used those not only as therapy but as fuel to inspire him to never let it happen again, to get to the Final Four, which was last year’s goal as a No. 1 seed.

“I think we started believing in ourselves since the loss last year, in a way that’s different than any other team I’ve been a part of,” Guy said Sunday. “Obviously last year we thought that we could win it all. We were 31-3, best team in the country, and we had a chance … I don’t know if that was hope, or belief.

“I know this year that there was a belief, as soon as that buzzer sounded last year, that we were going to do something special this year,” Guy added.

After last season concluded, the UVA guard took a lot of time for himself, doing anything that was therapeutic so that he could become a stronger person. He said it’s not hard to detect the growth from that moment.

Fans can see it in the team, too.

When the Cavaliers were down 10 points in the first half to another No. 16 seed in Gardner-Webb in the first round of the tournament, the nation was wondering, here we go again.

The team didn’t.

“We didn’t panic,” Guy said. “We just buckled down and tried to take care of business. I’m really proud of the way that everyone’s grown.”

One day removed from making three pressure free throws with a trip to the NCAA championship game on the line, 72,000 screaming fans in the U.S. Bank Stadium, a national TV audience, Guy would either send the game into overtime, win it, or lose it with those three shots.

For a guy — no pun intended — that used to suffer from anxiety, it would have been understandable had he melted under such pressure. Instead, he calmly made all three, the third after Auburn coach Bruce Pearl called a time out in an attempt to freeze him.

“I think all of my life has led to this,” Guy said. “Everything that I’ve been through made it a lot easier to hone in and try to knock down the free throws. I said that I was terrified. It was a good terrified, though, a good nervousness in my stomach like, ‘This is my chance,’ type of thing.

“I don’t know where it comes from. I know that my family’s always been behind me and I got to look at them before I shot the free throws.”

Bennett has tried to help his junior shooting guard in various ways in order to battle through all the ordeal.

“The best thing I could do for Kyle is I pray for him a lot,” Bennett said. “I do, and I’m there for him. We have a saying, be kind because everyone you meet is facing a hard battle.

“Some things you have to work through with yourself and the right kind of of help, and [Guy’s] very honest about it,” Bennett continued. “I try to encourage him and challenge him and be there for him, coach him hard.”

Guy, his coaches, his teammates are together in this journey, through the easy wins and the miracle wins, such as their last two games in the NCAA Tournament.

Is getting to the national championship in such a dramatic manner some sort of karma?

“I’m just incredibly thankful,” Bennett said. “In a way [UMBC] is a painful gift. It did draw us nearer to each other as a team. I think it helped us as coaches.”

But karma?

“That karmic payback, I don’t know,” Bennett grinned. “I knew it was going to be a significant year in all our lives. I just knew we needed each other.

“I knew it was going to be a really important marked year for all of us in our lives, and it’s certainly playing out that way.”

It plays out to the end Monday night, with one team climbing the ladder to cut down the net to “One Shining Moment,” every coach, every player’s dream.


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