MINNEAPOLIS — Tony Bennett wondered where this season would take him as he floated down the New River Gorge, his body submerged in the choppy water. The Virginia coach had just led his team through grueling late summer workouts and thought the group could use something fun to do. His idea of fun was white water rafting.
Virginia players, coaches, managers, and staff loaded onto buses and drove three hours to southern West Virginia. The one-night retreat featured mini golf and an ice cream run at Dairy Queen before a trip down what’s claimed to be one of the oldest rivers in the world.
This was the symbolic start of a new year for the ‘Hoos and a way to cleanse the body and soul after the worst loss in the history of college basketball. It was a bonding experience for a team that needed it after returning most of its key pieces just months after the UMBC disaster.
Virginia divided into three boats. Kyle Guy wore a go-pro camera on his helmet. Bennett wore swimming trunks with an oversized flower pattern and an even bigger smile on his face. Some on the team were not as enthusiastic.
“I learned that I’m still scared of water,” star forward De’Andre Hunter said. ”I was very happy when it was over. I was happy I was alive.”
Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, and sophomore Marco Anthony were most afraid of the water, but still agreed to get on the rafts after donning lifejackets. The tension was cut by an early moment of levity when senior manager Faris Wasim flew off a raft into the water after hitting a particularly fierce wave.
“Head first, feet up in the air,” Wasim recalled. “I gave everyone a laugh, though.”
There was only a brief bit of panic, when most of the group hopped off the rafts to float in the river but the tour guide’s boat zoomed down the river after catching a strong current. Eventually, the water settled down and so did the ‘Hoos.
There were spots along the river where players jumped off cliffs into the water. There were calm stretches perfect for a light swim. Even Hunter got in the water at one point, though he was only there for a few seconds before he starting clinging to the raft again.
“I probably won’t go whitewater rafting again,” Hunter said.
Diakite, the eventual star of the Elite Eight with his buzzer-beater vs. Purdue, was also terrified. He said he only likes to go in the water when it’s clear, and this river was not. But looking back now, he was able to find the beauty in the moment.
“I felt like we were sinking with the coaches,” he said. “The coaches looked like players. We could interact and have fun with them. The hierarchy wasn’t here.”
At one point, Bennett went underwater and grabbed Diakite’s leg. For as shocked as he was at the time, he’s able to recall it now with the smile.
These were the moments that rebuilt Virginia after it hit rock bottom. It was also the first thing Bennett thought of as his team started its march towards the Final Four.
“I remember just like it was the most beautiful setting just floating down the river with these guys,” Bennett said. “And I relayed that to them before the Purdue game, and I said — and I actually got a little emotional with them. I said, here we are. This was on the verge of the Elite Eight game. I’m floating on that river. What’s this year going to bring?”
Virginia is now one win away from its first national championship, with only Texas Tech standing in the way. What’s the year going to bring? At least for one more day, the ‘Hoos are still floating.