CHICAGO — Every comeback requires a collapse, and Virginia provided one of the most shocking ones in NCAA Tournament history Sunday at United Center.
It’s not just that the top-seeded Cavs led by 15 with 9:32 to play. It’s that this was Virginia: a team that is so hard to break … broke. Broke in a hurry. Syracuse’s press snapped them. Syracuse, which lacks a superstar and doesn’t even have a top-50 points-per-possession offense … went on a 25-4 run against a team that always gets back and never loses its ground. Virginia did not get back. It lost its ground; the earth collapsed beneath it and, seemingly with a whoosh, swallowed it whole.
This is a loss that goes down in history, a defeat that, maybe for decades, gets associated with a program. Arizona blowing it against Illinois in 2005 comes to mind. So does Gonzaga imploding against UCLA. Heck, even Northern Iowa folding against Texas A&M two weeks ago has competition now in this very tournament for the most unlikely cave-ins ever.
UVA lost the game by getting outscored 29-11 in the final 10 minutes, when Syracuse deployed its press, an attack that will forever be famous in central New York and at the same time infamous in central Virginia. The Cavaliers got beat 15-2 in points off turnovers.
Tony Bennett’s first loss ever against Syracuse is the biggest of his career. This is hard to reconcile. Most coaches would be getting lambasted for this kind of loss, and it’s fair to look at Bennett’s coaching job and ask a few more questions on why and how this could happen. Bennett said afterward that he’d hope to find those answers when watching the tape.
“When they threw that press on us, we didn’t really handle it in the best fashion,” senior Anthony Gill said. “We couldn’t keep them out of the lane, and it’s just something that UVA basketball doesn’t pride itself on, and that’s what happened tonight, and that’s how they were able to get back into the game.”
This Virginia team, which was placed into Michigan State’s region once again, managed to dodge Sparty, but not a Hall of Fame coach who tweaked his way into the program’s sixth Final Four. What isn’t surprising: Bennett and his team had no hung heads afterward. The loss hurt, but check the perspective on this man.
“But I’ll tell you guys in this opening statement, I usually don’t, what I told them,” he said. “I just told it to Lewis Johnson for CBS. He asked me, ‘What do you say to a group of guys like this for all they’ve done for your program?’ I don’t know if it’s an old church song or not, but it says weepy may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. We will have some tough nights because you’re so close you could taste it, but absolutely joy will come in the morning for what these guys have established for Virginia basketball.
“Where it was when they got here, all the guys that have helped get it to that, there will be joy, and I’m just so thankful to have coached them, and I know every coach says that at this time, but it is not lip service. It’s real. Does it sting? Does it hurt? Absolutely. I will look back through stuff. I’ll watch the film, and I’m sure there will be things I’ll look at and all that stuff will come. But proud to have Anthony and Malcolm and Mike and Kevin and Caid, and all that stuff, and I know it doesn’t feel that way, but I know it will be true.”
Bennett is truly one of the great coaches in college basketball. Blowing a big lead on a big stage doesn’t erase that. But it does become a significant bullet point at this stage of his 10-year career. He can and will recover from this — if “recover” is even the right word. We can all tend to get a little melodramatic with this sports stuff and the program should stay strong under his mentorship. This was his first Elite Eight and almost certainly won’t be his last. People will question Virginia’s tempo and its style, but really, this was a freak run by a legendary coach on the opposite sideline. Let’s just pause for some perspective. Bennett is a top-notch coach and the program isn’t going anywhere.
“It was a lot of emotion in there, of course,” Gill said of the locker room. “We’ve been together for so long, and for it to end like it did tonight when we were so close, of course, everybody’s emotion is going to be really high. But Coach Bennett, he gave us a great talk and told us how much we really meant to him and what we meant to this university. The experience that we get from playing college basketball, especially with guys who have been together for so long is something that you just can’t find anywhere. It’s a special thing, and for it to end like that, you know, of course it’s going to be a lot of emotion.”
Virginia won 112 games the past four seasons with this group, which ties a program record. Bennett is undefeated in the NCAA Tournament against coaches who don’t have “Hall of Fame” attached to their resume. Against the ones who are enshrined up in Springfield, Massachusetts? Now 0-4.
It’s fine to associate the outcome more with Virginia’s collapse than Syracuse’s comeback, but if you think this will in any way become a stigma for Bennett personally, you’re probably wrong. From the outside it will define part of what he’s done, but if you coach long enough, you’re bound to suffer some all-time brutal losses. Bennett waited 10 years for his first, and it could be twice as long if he ever sees something similar to this again.
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