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I’m a Virginia fan who stands by Tony Bennett forever

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Virginia’s loss to No. 16 UMBC stings, but there’s no question Tony Bennett is the right coach for UVA.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Charlotte Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Wooooo, boy. This one hurts. It’s weird, because I’m in a really strange spot. This isn’t the worst thing to happen to me this week, by far, so I’m maybe taking this a little better than some of the other Virginia fans out there.

But I’m going to try and put this into perspective.

That was one of the most epic, unexpected, heartbreaking losses in the history of college basketball. Not hyperbolic worst-ever loss — literal worst-ever loss.

No. 1 seeds don’t lose to No. 16 seeds. Ever. This is the first time in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament that a No. 1 seed has ever lost to a No. 16 seed. On top of that, Virginia was the top overall seed in the tournament. On top of that, UMBC was No. 63 in terms of true seed. On top of THAT, Virginia was hands-down, no question the best team in college basketball this season.

That, to me, doesn’t change. Virginia won a school-record 31 games, finishing with the fewest losses in the country (3), no matter what happens for the rest of the tournament. They rolled through the ACC, beating Duke, North Carolina (twice), Louisville (three times), and won an ACC record 17 conference games in the regular season. Their ACC tournament title was dominant and gave the Hoos 20 wins in conference, the best mark ever achieved.

I can hear you right now.

“That doesn’t matter, Caroline, they lost to a 16 seed LOL.”

I get that. I hear that. Part of me feels that.

But, it isn’t true. It absolutely does matter.

Virginia found out Tuesday they’d be without their explosive x-factor, DeAndre Hunter, who broke his wrist in the ACC semifinal win against Clemson. Was that the deciding factor? Maybe. Probably not, though.

You can point to UMBC being a tougher 16-seed, or Virginia not getting a play-in winner, or the fact that a 9:20 p.m. tip on the East Coast is not ideal. None of those things helped, but definitely didn’t cause the loss.

The deciding factor was the fact that UMBC hit just enough shots in the first half to keep the pressure on and build their confidence. Then they rode that confidence to a beat down. Virginia struggled offensively — not with finding open shots, but converting them. Foul trouble for seniors Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall sent them to the bench early, but no matter what the Hoos tried, nothing worked. In the second half, every time Virginia hit a shot, Jairus Lyles found a way to make a bucket.

A halftime tie ballooned into a 20 point loss.

I’ve already fielded the “can Tony Bennett coach in the big games?” questions, and people in the comment section are asking if he should be on the hot seat. No, really, that’s happening.

I’m 100% not here for that nonsense.

Yes, Tony Bennett can coach in the big game. No, he should absolutely not be on the hot seat. There is literally no one I would rather have coaching my team. No one.

The NCAA tournament is a brutal, beautiful beast. It is relentless and cruel and amazing all at the same time. Virginia shot 39 percent from three for the season and 18 percent in the loss.

I’m maybe one of the few that doesn’t buy into the complaints about the style or the success in March. It doesn’t work until it finally does.

In 2014, Virginia ran into an under-seeded Michigan State team in the Sweet 16 that won 61-59. It was the first time since the Ralph Sampson days that the Hoos were a one-seed, and it came down to one shot.

The next season, Virginia straight stunk it up. They sucked. Justin Anderson was recently back from a broken finger and an appendectomy and the Hoos lost to the Spartans again, this time an under-seeded seven-seed in the Round of 32.

2016 brought us the horribly perfect and terrible loss to Syracuse. Virginia led by 16 in the second half, seemingly on the way to their first Final Four since 1984. Then Syracuse pressed. The Hoos actually broke the press fine, but a missed lay up here, an un-called foul there, and the unconscious shooting of Malachi Richardson ripped hearts out. I still maintain if the Hoos didn’t play Iowa State the game prior — where they flawlessly broke the press and crushed the Cyclones’ souls — they maybe don’t push as hard offensively. One or two made baskets, Boeheim calls off the press, and the Hoos have a banner.

Last season, Virginia’s ceiling was much lower. The early season dismissal of Austin Nichols left a void in the post, and London Perrantes was forced into a role he wasn’t accustomed to. Couple all of that with Wilkins’ mysterious illness, and that performance wasn’t wholly unexpected (by me, at least). Did it suck? Sure, but Virginia’s “style” didn’t lead to 39 points.

This is Bennett’s ninth season at UVA. Bo Ryan took 14 years to make his first Final Four. Adolph Rupp took 12 seasons. Jay Wright took nine seasons to make his first. John Calipari took 11 years to get to one that wasn’t vacated. Sean Miller still hasn’t made one. Mike Brey still hasn’t made one.

Coach Bennett is one of the best coaches in the country, and the Virginia Cavaliers have established a winning culture that has become a mainstay in college basketball. The narrative will be that they can’t win the big game until they can.

As a Virginia fan, this game sucked, and sucked hard. But UMBC played incredibly, and that 16-vs-1 record was begging to be broken. It just happens it’s the Hoos that were on the losing side of it. I hate to break it to you, though, it also had nothing to do with the style that is so hated by those outside the greater Charlottesville area. Missed shots by Virginia and made shots by UMBC led to that upset.

To UMBC, congratulations. You earned this. You deserved this. You played hard, you shot well, and you were confident. Honestly, if there was a way to be on the wrong side of your team losing in such an epic upset, this is it. Your mascot is a cute dog and you caught a great team on an off day and made the most of it.

Regardless of the outcome, I LOVE this team. They played with heart all season, and I won’t entertain any discussions of them not caring or trying or whatever lazy argument. This is a team that started the season unranked, worked their way to number one in the country, held that spot for five straight weeks (two unanimous), and did it with a roster that was full of “untalented” nobodies.

None of that changes with a single-elimination loss in a crapshoot tournament. This will sting, and I’ll keep smiling through the tweets and the texts and the jokes and the inevitable time in the future where this comes up as an answer to a trivia question.

This hurts, but it’ll pass.