Virginia Marks 2019 National Title With Celebration

Coach Bennett takes questions ahead of Friday’s National Championship Celebration at John Paul Jones Arena.

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Tony Bennett is not big on celebrations. Back in 2014 when his Virginia team ended a 33-year drought between ACC Tournament championships, a banquet was suggested to acknowledge the feat.

“Naahh, I don’t think so,” Bennett said, rejecting the idea. “We don’t do a season-ending banquet.”

Not until five years later, that is. Even the low-key, even-keeled Bennett submitted to celebrating UVA’s national championship. This was special and so was Friday night’s gala at John Paul Jones Arena where the championship banner was raised to the rafters.

All the Cavaliers heroes were there, three of them on loan from the NBA: De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. Mamadi Diakite, still with the unmistakable golden mane, was there with his Elite Eight heroic mate Kihei Clark. Everyone who was a part of the natty, with the exception of Jack Salt, who’s back in New Zealand, was in attendance to celebrate and to try on their national championship rings.

Bennett had pondered for days about what he was going to say. Each thought of the incredible NCAA Tournament run conjured up another bunch of memories.

He shared one of them for the first time to the estimated 10,000 Wahoos on hand. Bennett had kept this story close to his vest.

It was the night of the Auburn game, one in which Virginia had won by the skin of its teeth when Guy came to the rescue, cooly blocking out the 72,000 fans, and putting the Cavaliers in the school’s first-ever national title game.

Bennett was alone in his family’s hotel room when it hit him full force.

“I was sitting on the bed,” Bennett said. “And the floodgates opened. They really did, and I just sat there. I realized at that moment that all the ridicule, all the criticism, all the humility, all the things that happened. At that moment it was crystal clear that it was all worth it. It absolutely was.”

The crowd grew silent with intrigue. It was that kind of night, a special night when Bennett was so happy to see the players come back home.

“It means the world to me,” he said, “and I think it means the world to them.”

In some ways, the incredible run to the championship had sunk in with the coach, and in some ways it still hadn’t fully hit him. Bennett believed that the celebration would bring it all home.

“I actually think that when that banner is raised and it’s placed up there permanently – you know it’s going to be up there forever – you’ll walk by and see it and think, OK,” Bennett said.

Not long afterward, the national championship banner – a big one – was raised to the rafters of the House that Tony Built, as chills raced down the spines of true-blue Wahoos. Everyone in the basketball program tried on their oversized championship rings.

“The players designed [the rings] and I’ve got a feeling I won’t be wearing it around a lot,” Bennett joked. “If our ACC rings are any indication, if these are that size or any bigger, I don’t think it will be on my ring finger, but in a box as a keepsake.”

The rings are LARGE, the way a championship ring should be, so everyone can see.

While Bennett spoke after AD Carla Williams and UVA president Jim Ryan, the coach wanted to make sure that the night remained on theme.

“My message is simple,” Bennett said. “Let’s enjoy tonight and celebrate a national championship. That’s all I’m worried about. We had a workout before (the celebration) and we’ll have one tomorrow. But tonight, enjoy this for what it’s worth because it’s special. Maybe it’s once in a lifetime, maybe, if you’re lucky enough, it happens a few more times.”

Bennett did reveal to media before the game, something that he later told the crowd, another memory that he had not shared before. As a college player, an NBA player, an assistant coach, a head coach, he had experienced a lot of countless great games on various levels.

Now, one particular game stood out above all the rest.

“I don’t want to shortchange any of them,” Bennett said. “I remember Michigan State and Virginia in the Sweet 16 game, that was a heavyweight fight (in Madison Square Garden), a championship-caliber game.

“But that [Elite Eight] Purdue game at Louisville, that game, with all that was at stake, and you’re answering back and forth, that was the highest level game I’ve ever been part of, with drama to the end. That game, from start to finish, is the best one I’ve been part of.”

Certainly no Cavalier worth his salt will ever forget that game when Guy picked himself up off the floor, rallied himself at halftime and answered Boilermakers’ red-hot guard Carsen Edwards. It was the game that linked Clark, the fearless freshman, and the flamboyant Diakite together for eternity, made them folk heroes in NCAA Tournament basketball lore as the Cavaliers won in overtime to advance to their first Final Four since 1984.

Oh, what a special night this was indeed. Stories, rings, the banner, the memories.

Perhaps the only thing that made it better is that when it was all over, Diakite, sitting in a near-empty pressroom, wearing his ring with pride, said his goal was to get another one.


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