Thirteen months ago, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team suffered the most humiliating defeat in NCAA Tournament history. Not only were the Cavaliers the first number-one seeded team is history to lose their opening round game to a sixteenth-seeded team, the University of Maryland Baltimore County beat them by twenty points. This season, they were forced to endure the same chant at every road game they played: “UMBC! UMBC!”
Well, on Monday night, Virginia beat Texas Tech in the NCAA championship game, in overtime. Since then, the word “redemption” has been frequently used to describe this year’s much better season ending. It’s a word that fits for reasons that go well beyond basketball.
But there’s another word that fits, too. After Monday’s big championship win, UVA coach Tony Bennett said the word that best described his team was “faithfulness.”
For context, especially for anyone out there not completely absorbed by March Madness like I am, prior to Virginia’s 2018 loss, sixteenth-seeded teams were 0-135 against top-seeded teams.
Given that it had never happened before, no one knew how UVA would respond this year. They responded well. This season, Virginia’s win-loss record was 29-2.
Of course, everyone already knew the Cavaliers were a formidable regular-season team, especially with their suffocating “Pack line” defense. The question was whether, as ESPN’s 538 website put it, UVA was a “postseason fraud.”
In fact in their opening game this year, they were once again a #1 seed facing a #16 seed, this time Gardner Webb. And, they fell behind by fourteen points in the first half. Bennett told the Washington Post, “I remember thinking, ‘We can’t go through this again.” So he told his players that he “could accept losing, but couldn’t accept anything less than every single thing they had to give.”
Message received. They rallied to win. It was the first in a series of nail-biters—what sports writer John Feinstein called “miracles”—that eventually culminated in Monday night’s championship victory.
“When the clock ran out and the confetti fell,” Feinstein wrote, “Bennett, a deeply religious man, sat on a stool in Virginia’s bench area, head bowed, giving thanks.”
Bennett’s giving thanks after making history is in keeping with his biblically-based approach to coaching. Yes, you heard me correctly, “biblically-based.” Four years ago, the Washington Post ran a story on Bennett, and the title was “Bennett builds Virginia basketball on pillars of faith.”
The story described how Bennett visited a recruit’s home, emphasizing defense and team play. As he was leaving, he told the player, “Live by faith, not by sight.” The player, who went on to play for Bennett for four years, said, “That’s what sold me. After that, I was like, ‘I want to play for this guy.’”
The same Washington Post story explains why Bennett used the word “faithfulness” on Monday night to explain his team’s win: “There’s a reference in the Bible,” Bennett said in the article, “that if you’re faithful to the little things, then there’ll be more, and you’ll be faithful with more.”
When times were hard, Bennett would ask whether he and his team were “being faithful to the things that matter to our program?” If they were, that’s what mattered. The devout, Bible-quoting coach would encourage his team “don’t grow weary of doing good.” That of course is easier said than done. It requires faith that doing good is its own reward. In other words, it requires faithfulness.
We now know the results of Bennett’s strange use of Christian words and concepts to coach basketball. Tony Kornheiser of ESPN called UVA’s journey from humiliation to national championship a “Shakespearean” act of redemption. I think it would be more accurate to call it “Biblical.”