MINNEAPOLIS — Ty Jerome was walking off the court in the moments following the worst loss in the history of college basketball when he saw his friend and teammate unable to control his emotions. Kyle Guy was balling, overcome by the weight of an upset that seemed so inconceivable. Jerome put his arm around him, gave him a tight hug, and whispered something in his ear.
“We’re going to get one before we’re done.”
Guy and Jerome embraced again Monday night just over a year later, this time with blue and orange confetti falling from the sky in U.S. Bank Stadium. Asked after the game to put his national championship into words, Guy said it was the greatest thing he had ever felt on the basketball court. Jerome looked at him, smiled, and asked his own follow-up question.
“Are you going to cry now?”
Only Hollywood should be able to write the type of redemption story Virginia pulled off in Minneapolis. Losing to UMBC, becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever fall to a No. 16, would have defined Guy and Jerome’s college career under any other circumstances. By running through the NCAA tournament and winning the national title only a year later, Virginia’s stars have reduced a landmark defeat to a mere prologue.
The way the ‘Hoos did it was stranger than fiction. Virginia opened the NCAA tournament again as a No. 1 seed only to find itself trailing No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb by 14 points, its biggest deficit of the season. A team with less belief and less mental toughness might have been overwhelmed by deja vu, but the ‘Hoos regained their composure and turned it into a blowout.
Things would only get scarier from there. Virginia was down three with five seconds left in the Elite Eight when Purdue took an intentional foul to put Jerome on the line. He made the first free throw and purposefully missed the second. A teammate tipped the ball backwards, where point guard Kihei Clark corralled it past halfcourt and threw a bullet no-look pass to Mamadi Diakite for an incredible buzzer-beater to force overtime before an eventual win.
In the Final Four, Virginia trailed Auburn by three with 1.5 seconds remaining as Guy missed a corner three off the rim. The stadium PA announcer proclaimed the Tigers the winner as the refs huddled and called a foul. Guy couldn’t stop smiling at the free-throw line as he drained all three attempts to win the game.
In the national title, Virginia trailed by three against Texas Tech with 12 seconds left when Jerome hit De’Andre Hunter with a pass in the corner. Hunter drained the shot, forced consecutive misses by Red Raiders star Jarrett Culver at the other end to bring on overtime. In OT, the refs reversed an out-of-bounds call to give UVA possession up two with just over a minute left. Texas Tech fouled, and Jerome essentially iced the game with free throws.
Just one of these wins would have made for a charmed March Madness run. Virginia got four of them.
This was not Jerome’s first national championship game, at least not technically. Seven years earlier, Jerome and his father sat in the stands in New Orleans as Anthony Davis and Kentucky defeated Kansas and cut down the nets.
Mark Jerome had played DI basketball himself at Lafayette. Ty’s mother Melanie played DIII ball at Brandeis. If only for a moment, Mark allowed himself to daydream about what it would be like for Ty to play on this stage, though he knew how much of a longshot it was.
Most coaches didn’t think Jerome was quick enough to play in the ACC out of high school. There were times when Tony Bennett thought it, too. But the more he watched Jerome, the more he sensed there was something about him he couldn’t shake. Bennett trusted his gut and extended an offer.
On the brink of his son’s sophomore year, Mark started chatting with a reporter who didn’t know who he was. The elder Jerome asked him what he thought of the team. The reporter said they could use a faster point guard. The two kept chatting for several more minutes before Mark finally introduced himself as the father of the slow point guard.
Mark Jerome stood on the championship court only feet away from another father: Dick Bennett. Bennett had an illustrious coaching career at Wisconsin that featured a Final Four run in 2000. His 30-year-old son Tony tagged along as a volunteer assistant on the bench. It was Dick Bennett who instilled the pack-line defensive system that would later come to define his son’s coaching success. Dick Bennett never coached at Virginia, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he was treated.
Former Virginia star Justin Anderson was wearing a sweatshirt all week in Minnesota with four lines.
Defense, c/o Dick Bennett
Anderson and former Virginia star Malcolm Brogdon gave the 75-year-old Bennett a double hug as UVA players cut down the nets. Joe Harris and Devon Hall did, too. The players change at Virginia, but the system never does. The Cavaliers always play slower than any team in America, finishing literally dead last in the tempo rankings this season. They always play elite defense, too. Brogdon and Harris didn’t win their own national championship with the ‘Hoos, but this Virginia team wouldn’t have been there without their excellence.
“They’ll make a movie about this one day,” Harris said. Even he knew it would be hard for the film to be as good as real life.
The ‘Hoos had two options after falling to UMBC: let the loss define them, or let it sharpen them. Guy took it particularly hard, shutting himself off from the world in the weeks after it happened. Eventually, he realized the only way to get over it was to confront it head-on.
Guy wrote an open letter to himself about how the loss affected his mental health and posted it on Facebook. He changed his phone background and his Twitter avatar to UMBC celebrating as he hung his head in defeat. It served as a daily reminder for his motivation all season.
Opposing fans never let Virginia forget it. When UVA headed to Duke for its only meeting in Durham, the Cameron Crazies started a GoFundMe to get UMBC stars to sit with them in the stands. When Mike Krzyzewski eventually shut down the plan, they did the next best thing and chanted U-M-B-C throughout the game.
Virginia players recalled the chants as they sat in the postgame locker room with parts of the net tucked into their championship hats. They weren’t adversarial about the taunts, the memes, or the doubters that questioned if this style could win a championship.
Instead, Virginia players viewed it all as part of the journey, a journey that has now come full circle. Maybe Virginia was always a team of destiny. Maybe they were just really good.
No matter how the movie eventually tells it, just know it will have a happy ending.