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Jemison: What goes around, comes around in the NCAA Tournament

On March 16, 2018, the University of Virginia (UVA) men’s basketball team suffered perhaps the most embarrassing defeat in the history of college sports. The overall number one-seeded Cavaliers, fresh off an ACC Championship, lost to the 16-seed University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers by a 74-54 margin. It was the first ever victory for a 16-seed over a one-seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament. The defeat seemingly ensured that UVA and head coach Tony Bennett would go down as the most infamous losers in the history of the sport.

Fast-forward to April 8, 2019, and those same Virginia Cavaliers are standing atop the college basketball world thanks to an 85-77 National Championship game victory over Texas Tech. A year after the worst defeat imaginable, UVA secured the greatest victory possible.

UVA’s magical redemption run is, I believe, the greatest comeback story in sports history. It will someday be one heck of a sports movie, with Matt Damon or George Clooney playing Tony Bennett and, per Hunter’s request, Will Smith playing Cavaliers star De’Andre Hunter.

It’s hard to overstate just how devastating the UMBC defeat was for this Virginia program, who were already constantly questioned about their lack of postseason success. The general public considered their entire program a fraud after UMBC. But in the immortal words of Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight”: “The night is darkest just before the dawn.” And UVA experienced the brightest dawn possible with Monday night’s thrilling victory over Texas Tech.

Virginia’s NCAA Tournament run required some remarkable luck. The Cavaliers, once again a one-seed, were down 14 in the first half to 16-seed Gardner Webb in the first round and escaped. They trailed 12-seed Oregon late in the second half of their Sweet 16 matchup and once again found a way to win. Then they had the miracle of all miracles to beat three-seed Purdue in the Elite Eight. Down two with less than five seconds remaining in regulation, freshman point guard Kihei Clark rocketed a nearly full-court pass to Mamadi Diakite, who made a jumper at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. Virginia eventually prevailed to punch their ticket to the Final Four.

It got crazier. In their Final Four game against five-seed Auburn, the Cavaliers trailed by four with fewer than 10seconds remaining. But Virginia guard Kyle Guy hit a three-pointer, and then, after Auburn made one of two free throws, Guy was fouled while shooting a three at the buzzer. The Final Four Most Outstanding Player calmly knocked in all three free throws to give his team a 63-62 victory.

Then came Monday night’s National Championship game, where the Cavaliers once again found themselves trailing in the final seconds. This time it took a De’Andre Hunter three-pointer with 12 seconds remaining to tie the game and send it to overtime, where, once again, Virginia came out on top.

UVA certainly had to play well to win all of those games. But they also got pretty lucky. They found themselves trailing with fewer than 15 seconds to play in three straight games. All three times, they pulled out an improbable victory. Sometimes you have to get a little lucky, particularly in the NCAA Tournament.

Last year, the Cavaliers found themselves on the opposite end of Lady Luck’s Wheel of Fortune. Hunter suffered an injury just days before the start of the NCAA Tournament, and UMBC shot the ball incredibly well in route to the biggest upset in college sports history. UVA certainly didn’t play well in that game, but some bad luck exacerbated their situation and led to their early exit.

UVA’s comeback story is the best example of a common theme from this year’s NCAA Tournament: What goes around comes around. UVA had the worst possible luck in last year’s tournament, and they had the best possible luck in this year’s tournament.

Virginia’s Final Four opponent, the Auburn Tigers, had a similar trip around Lady Luck’s Wheel. In their first round game against 12-seed New Mexico State, the Tigers managed to escape despite making the same mistakes that eventually cost them against UVA. Up two with 1.7 seconds remaining, Auburn fouled New Mexico State’s Terrell Brown while he was taking a three-pointer. But the Tigers got lucky; Brown made only one of three free throws, and Auburn prevailed. In the Final Four, however, the Tigers didn’t get so lucky. They fouled Kyle Guy on a three-point attempt with 0.6 seconds remaining, and Guy made all three to send Auburn to a devastating defeat.

Auburn and Virginia were not the only teams to see their luck flipped on its head. Number one overall seed Duke, the prohibitive favorites entering the tournament, had two narrow escapes before their mistakes finally came back to bite them. The Blue Devils watched their second-round opponent, eight-seed UCF, miss a point-blank putback at the buzzer that would have sent the favorites home early. They got lucky again in the Sweet 16, as four-seed Virginia Tech missed a wide open layup at the buzzer that would have sent the game to OT. But their luck ran out in the Elite Eight when Michigan State’s Kenny Goins nailed a go-ahead three late in the game to keep Duke and future #1 NBA draft pick Zion Williamson from reaching the Final Four. What goes around, comes around.  

My beloved Tennessee Volunteers also experienced this weird tournament phenomenon. The two-seed Vols blew a 25-point lead against second-round opponent Iowa and allowed the game to go to OT, but Tennessee recovered to win in the extra period. In their Sweet 16 game against Purdue, however, it was the Vols who found themselves down 18 in the second half before coming back to force OT … and lose anyway. As a fan of a team who rode Lady Luck’s wheel during this NCAA Tournament, believe me, it was difficult to watch. But I accept that this is how the tournament works. What goes around comes around.

There’s plenty more examples of this phenomenon. Think Purdue, who hit two free throws with less than two seconds remaining to force OT in their win over Tennessee. But in their next game, the Boilermakers watched UVA hit a buzzer beater to force OT and eventually eliminate them. Or think 2018 national champions Villanova, who made an NCAA-record 18 threes to beat Kansas in last year’s Final Four, but then witnessed Purdue hit a near-record 16 threes to knock them out of this year’s tournament in the second round. Or think national runners-up Texas Tech, who used their record-breaking defense to shut down every NCAA Tournament opponent before being largely shut down by Virginia in overtime of the National Championship game. What goes around, comes around.

Which brings me back to UVA. The Cavaliers know the meaning of the phrase, “What goes around, comes around,” better than anyone. They had the worst luck and the worst defeat in last year’s NCAA Tournament. But this year, they ended up with some pretty magical luck and a National Championship.

That’s just how this crazy, awesome thing we call March Madness works, and it’s what makes the NCAA Tournament so fun. To get more philosophical, the total uncertainty of the tournament and the raw emotion that is creates is a microcosm of what makes sports so popular. You legitimately never know what’s going to happen in sports, and March Madness is the best example.

You could see the utter joy on the faces of the Virginia players, coaches and fans after the game. But it wasn’t just joy; it was also relief. They had been carrying the burden of that UMBC defeat around for the past 389 days, but lugging that heavy weight around all season made the Cavaliers stronger. They were ready for their One Shining Moment in a way that perhaps no team ever has been or will be again. And to partially answer the question posed by Jack Golub in his insightful column, “Why Do Colleges Have Sports?,” Monday night’s National Championship game proved why college sports are unique and important. Just look at the remarkable journey that those Virginia players took from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs, and the indescribable joy it unleashed amongst an entire fanbase. College sports have plenty of flaws, but Virginia’s victory reminds us that they have plenty of value as well.

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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