Mamadi Diakite sat at a small table at the front of the room, a microphone in front of him.
The Virginia men’s basketball team, along with head coach Tony Bennett, had participated in numerous media sessions since their NCAA Tournament run began. Now, one day before the program’s first-ever appearance in the national championship game, UVA’s five starters had individual sessions inside small makeshift rooms on the ground level of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
“First question for Mamadi?” an NCAA media representative, seated next to Diakite (Col ’19), asked the handful of reporters.
A reporter on the far side of the room raised his hand. “Yes—Mamadi, I’m wondering, with how your season ended last year and how far you guys have come, do you think you are a team of destiny?”
Diakite paused, a slow smile spreading across his face as he rubbed his buzzed hair, dyed platinum blond. Fate and destiny had been mentioned by media members throughout the weekend, particularly after the previous two games.
In the first—against Purdue in the Elite Eight—Diakite (thanks to a laser pass from freshman guard Kihei Clark [Col ’22]) had hit an improbable last-second jumper to send the game into overtime, where junior guard Kyle Guy (Col ’20) and Clark sank two free throws apiece—Guy with 5 seconds to go and Clark with 1 second remaining—to seal Virginia’s spot in the Final Four.
Next, in UVA’s semifinal matchup against Auburn, the Cavaliers were down by 2 points with 0.6 seconds left when Guy attempted a 3-pointer from the corner; he missed, the buzzer rang out, and Auburn fans began celebrating.
But the baseline referee had blown his whistle, calling a foul on Auburn’s Samir Doughty as Guy took a shot. Moments later, Guy stood at the free-throw line, his expression calm and focused, as he made three in a row (even after Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl called a timeout before his third shot to ice him) to send the Wahoos to their inaugural national
In both games, UVA had trailed with fewer than 15 seconds left in regulation. How many more buzzer beaters could they withstand? Was destiny, in fact, driving the Cavaliers?
In reality, this title game, which capped Bennett’s 10th season at the helm of Virginia basketball, was the result of years of building a program that begins with his five pillars: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Despite the cacophony of critics over Bennett’s style (“too slow, too boring”), his teams had gradually improved to quiet the naysayers—until
In 2014, led by Malcolm Brogdon (Col ’15, Batten ’16), who would soon become the NBA’s rookie of the year, and Joe Harris (Col ’14), who this season was the NBA’s 3-point shooting percentage leader, the Cavaliers won the ACC outright and achieved the program’s highest national ranking since 1983. But then, UVA lost to Michigan State in the Sweet 16.
Two years later, led by ACC Player of the Year Brogdon, as well as redshirt senior Anthony Gill (Col ’15) and junior point guard London Perrantes (Col ’18)—all three of whom averaged double digits in scoring—the Cavaliers won 29 games and tied for second in the ACC. Entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed, UVA advanced as far as the Elite Eight—their furthest in the Bennett era—before blowing a 16-point lead against Syracuse.
Last year, under the strong leadership of future NBA draft pick Devon Hall (Col ’16) and 2018 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Wilkins (Col ’18) (who is playing professionally in New Zealand), Virginia held the country’s No. 1 ranking for five consecutive weeks, set a program record with 31 wins and won both the ACC regular season and tournament titles. They were the top overall seed heading into the NCAA Tournament.
And then, on March 16, 2018, four letters happened: UMBC.
After that game
The 20-point loss to University of Maryland at Baltimore County was not only heartbreaking, it was historic, too—the first time a top seed fell to a 16th seed.
A year later, the Cavaliers again found themselves vulnerable in their first-round game. Down by 14 in the first half against 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb, Cavalier fans worried: Not again.
“That moment prepared them for what would take place the rest of the tournament,” Bennett said in a phone interview, 11 days after the tournament win. “All of a sudden, bang, you’re there again. And then to answer it and be resilient, that was significant. That moment was heavy, it was honest.”
Fueled by a 23-3 run in the second half, UVA emerged victorious. The pressure of a historic-loss repeat removed, UVA was more at ease as it soundly defeated Oklahoma in the second round, where three players scored in double digits and the team led the entire second half. In the Sweet 16, the ’Hoos faced a strong Oregon squad, relying on defense in a back-and-forth battle to win by 4 points and advance to the Elite Eight showdown against Purdue.
Whether it was the inescapability all year of the UMBC loss, the déjà vu moments, or the team’s depth and versatility on both ends of the court, it all culminated in a national championship game where UVA’s players relied on their talent, grit and resiliency in a thrilling finish, defeating Texas Tech, 85-77.
Was the 2019 championship run destiny? Was it fate? Or was it the culmination of a year—years, really—of work and perseverance?
“I have no answer to that,” Diakite said, back at the podium the day before the championship. “All I can say is, we kept doing what Coach asked us throughout the year: Stick to the routine, be focused, work hard—and the result will be good.”
A year earlier, in a very different news conference after the UMBC loss, Bennett emphasized—several times—Virginia’s record-setting 31 wins and ACC titles. “They had a historic season, they really did,” Bennett said of his team. “And then we had a historic loss.” He talked about the parallels between life’s ups and downs and those that happen within basketball.
Still, the cameras couldn’t hide Guy’s red, teary eyes or Ty Jerome’s (Col ’20) somber expression; while Bennett hadn’t wanted to ask seniors Wilkins and Hall to talk to the media moments after their college basketball careers abruptly ended, the news conference still looked like a forced exercise in pain for the sophomores. And the effects of the defeat had only begun to settle.
Facing the doubters
Pundits said a Bennett-led team would never win a title and that UMBC was only the most recent loss to expose those flaws. Each player and coach processed the end of the 2017-18 season in his own way, whether it was meeting with Bennett several days later to discuss tweaks for the next year, as Jerome had, or working out for 7 hours a day at a training facility in Miami, as Diakite had done.
“When we had that break, and we went home, I don’t think anyone rested,” Diakite says. “We were trying to focus on the next phase—how we can approach the upcoming season.”
Bennett reevaluated everything about his program: practices, offensive plays, defensive schemes, lineups, game day routines, even off-court bonding. In the season’s first October practice, instead of running through drills, Bennett showed his team a 17-minute TED Talk that his wife, Laurel, had shared with him. The speaker, professional storyteller Donald Davis, talked about taking control of your own narrative rather than letting it control you. “I knew this year would be significant because of what we’d have to face: It would be full force coming at us all year, all the time,” Bennett said post-championship.
In considering how best to prepare his players after an unprecedented experience, he reiterated the importance of context. “What in your life is unconditional?” Bennett asked his team in those initial practices. “A friend of mine shared this with me: ‘Don’t be captivated when you hear their cheers or destroyed when you hear their jeers. You’ll hear them both.’ I wanted them to remember to have things in life that aren’t affected by your success as a coach or player.”
Relying on motivational speeches, quotes and scenes—as well as his strong Christian faith—has been an integral part of Bennett’s modus operandi since he began coaching. In his first coaching season, which was a hybrid of player and coach in 1997 for the North Harbor Kings in New Zealand, Bennett had spent the night before his first game watching Chariots of Fire. The 1981 classic is based on the true story of British athletes preparing for and competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics.
While watching, Bennett fixated not on the movie’s final, climactic race but on an earlier contest, when potential gold medalist Eric Liddell is pushed off the track and falls down. A timekeeper, holding a stopwatch with a cigar in his mouth, snarls to himself, “Get up, lad! Get up!” Liddell does, the movie’s famous theme song plays, and despite falling behind, he grits out a first-place finish.
Bennett recorded the scene and took it to the gym the next morning. The team was facing the Auckland Rebels, a routine matchup, as Bennett queued up the VCR. “This is what it’s going to take, guys!” Bennett remembered telling his team, chuckling at the memory as he spoke in a phone interview. The point was clear: “As a coach, you’re always trying to find things that motivate you, or will connect guys to something.”
At this year’s first practice, as his past teams have done, the Cavalier players listened—and responded.
“The whole idea [of the TED Talk] was, ‘You have a story, but how do you want your story to end?’ ” said Braxton Key (Col ’20) post-championship. “We’re all given difficult things in life. We can either take the high route or the low option. Yes, losing to a 16-seed is on the opposite end of history, but what can we learn from it?”
As the regular season began, the team answered that question. Their depth was evident almost immediately, particularly with the addition of Key and the emergence of Clark, a confident, quick-passing, savvy guard. Guy, who had written publicly about his struggles with anxiety and panic attacks the previous April, appeared calmer and more confident, showcasing his depth on offense and defense.
Jerome’s persistent shooting practice during the summer—it was rumored that UVA coaches had to kick him out of the gym on some days, to force him to take a break—showed as he scored from around the floor, while his complete court vision allowed him to rack up 202 season assists.
De’Andre Hunter (Col ’20), already talked about as an NBA draft pick, showed his offensive (averaging more than 15 points per game) and defensive dominance, shutting down opponents as he helped lead Virginia to the nation’s top defensive efficiency rating (Virginia finished the season with opponents averaging only 56.1 points per game, 2 points less than the second-best team).
For Bennett-led squads, though, defensive strength, led by their famed pack-line defense, was nothing new. But this year’s squad coupled that with increased offensive depth. Not only did the team have more scoring options (points in the paint from center Jay Huff [Educ ’20]), Diakite, Hunter and Key; shooters from behind the arc like Jerome, Clark and Guy; and quick-handed floaters and lane-driving layups from most of the above); but Bennett also showed more flexibility in his offensive schemes. As a result, the Cavaliers were hard to defend, particularly their on-ball screens, leading to top offensive efficiency ratings as well.
Also, the Cavaliers were mostly healthy; though fifth-year center Jack Salt (Col ’19) struggled with back pain, the bulk of the roster was available (Guy, Hunter and Jerome all averaged more than 32 minutes per game on the season), unlike past years, when a key starter was often sidelined with injuries. Off the court, the close-knit players spent their down time together, whether playing video games (Key claims to rule Ms. Pac-Man), card games (Jerome is rumored to be the king) or dining out.
“We were trying to keep our minds off of the season,” Key says. “We’ve known what we are capable of all year, and we were trying to write our own script.”
Bennett and his staff had followed that philosophy for years. While ACC powerhouses like UNC and Duke often recruit high school stars who play only one season of college basketball before going pro, Bennett has recruited and coached by helping his players mature and learn as much off of the court as on it, typically over four or five seasons. Through his pillars, he emphasizes the importance of giving back and honoring those who helped them reach this point.
So when Salt arrived at Clark Elementary School on a fall Friday to read books to Mrs. Rogers’ kindergarten class, it wasn’t surprising. Nor was it unusual that Clark and Grant Kersey (Col ’20) were regulars across town at Venable Elementary, visiting weekly with Ms. Hamilton’s kindergarten class to read and do puzzles before heading outside for basketball tutorials.
This past November, at Charlottes-ville’s Albemarle High School, more than 1,000 students packed the gym’s wooden bleachers on a Thursday afternoon as a team of AHS special-needs students took the court to play against members of Albemarle’s faculty and staff.
Just before tipoff, the 12 special-needs students awaited instruction from their guest coaches, all UVA basketball players: Guy, Salt, Hunter, and AHS alumni Kersey and Austin Katstra (Col ’21).
Throughout the game, the UVA players cheered, high-fived, and posed for photos. When a young girl in a wheelchair who has difficulty speaking motioned for the ball, Guy handed it off to her and pointed out an open teammate. As she passed the ball, she yelled in delight.
“That brings me a lot of joy, probably more than them,” Guy said afterward. “With my platform, I know I can reach a lot of people. I’ve always felt passionate about making a difference in someone’s life. That’s honestly more important to me than basketball.”
As the players connected with the community off the court, they maintained their rhythm on it. After 16 straight wins, UVA’s first defeat came on Jan. 19, a 2-point loss to Duke in Durham. Yet Jerome’s father, Mark, a basketball coach himself, said via phone post-championship, “[After the Duke loss] I was still thinking, ‘This team is so good. If they shoot well and they click, they can be the best team in the country.’”
On Feb. 9, the Cavaliers endured their second, and final, loss during regular season play—again to Duke. The impact of those losses was minimized in national headlines by sports fans’ zeal for the once-in-a-generation play of Duke freshman Zion Williamson, with his persistent hold of the ACC and national spotlight.
When UVA entered the ACC Tournament as the No. 1 seed but lost to Florida State in the semifinals, it was a wake-up call. “We were just super, super focused after that,” Diakite says. “I was so close to the trophy, only six games away. I wanted to do whatever it took.”
Indeed, while he averaged 7.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game during the regular season, Diakite increased those averages to 13 points and 9 rebounds through the first four NCAA Tournament games—including making the shot that will likely fill NCAA Tournament highlight reels for years to come.
One shining moment
On that historic championship night, family had come to celebrate: Former UVA-now-professional players Brogdon, Justin Anderson (Col ’16), Hall and Harris stood on the court together as they watched “One Shining Moment,” with tens of thousands of pieces of confetti falling.
Throughout the tournament, a different team member had added a “Virginia” sticker to the team’s March Madness bracket in the locker room after each victory. For the final placard, Bennett took his turn. As he pressed the nametag into the “champions” box, Bennett grinned and two-stepped a short dance before moving back to stand beside his team, who wore their newly minted white hats with the word CHAMPIONS written under the bill.
Having cut down the championship net to complete a 35-win season—the most in program history—Bennett embraced his father, renowned former head coach Dick Bennett, who had led Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000. The two marked only the second father-son duo in history to appear in a Final Four as head coaches.
“I was so impressed with how he changed a lot of things in the post-season,” Key said afterward of his coach. “We stuck to our system, but we changed a few things and that helped us get over the edge. The last four games, you had to win how you’re going to win.”
Bennett also set another impressive mark: winning a national championship in only his 13th season as a head coach. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski took 16 years to win his first national title; UNC’s Roy Williams 17 years; Kentucky’s John Calipari 20 years; and former UNC head coach and legend Dean Smith 21 years.
“I can’t think of a better leader, someone to guide better in [Ty’s] life than Tony Bennett,” said Mark Jerome. “He’s so strategic and so smart—he’s got a strategy even when he loses. When I coach, I’m emotional, and I see it as a reflection on me if we lose. But with him, he’s calm—and it’s so productive and healthy for his players.”
That night, though, it was only celebrations, as UVA athletic director Carla Williams gave Diakite a big hug, Guy raced over to the seats to embrace his fiancee, Alexa Jenkins, and UVA President James E. Ryan (Law ’92), alongside one of Ryan’s sons, stood near the basket, taking it all in.
Less than two weeks later, Jerome, Hunter, Guy and Diakite all announced their decision to forgo their final year of eligibility and declare for June’s NBA draft (Diakite decided to forgo the NBA Draft and return for another year at UVA). They were Virginia’s top four scorers this year; as such, the Cavaliers’ makeup will look quite different when they begin defending their national championship on Nov. 6 at Syracuse.
Key said he hadn’t fallen asleep until 5 a.m. on championship eve, too nervous and excited for what was to come. Early in the season, he’d been disappointed at his lack of playing time, frustrated at not knowing whether he’d play 20 or 5 minutes on a given night. But reflecting a week post-championship, he says that Bennett’s plan taught him how to be a better teammate, a better man, and how to find the positive in situations that felt the opposite—a mentality he’ll embrace going forward.
So was 2019 destiny? Perhaps. Fate? Maybe. But Key is certain of one thing: “For us to bounce back—to go from the laughingstock of college hoops to the national champions?
“That shows that anything is possible.”