“Team of destiny” is a sports cliche given to a team that, through sheer luck, generous refereeing or the will of some higher authority, seems to overcome any obstacle in its path and go the distance. It’s a vague, unscientific label that often undermines a team’s actual ability.
Yet after the No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers overcame a late-game deficit in miracle fashion for the third time in as many games to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament over No. 3 Texas Tech on Monday night, 85-77, one has to wonder if there was some sort of divine intervention at play.
What else can explain why Texas Tech, one of the best defensive college basketball teams in recent memory, parted like the Red Sea when Virginia junior Ty Jerome drove down the lane with less than 20 seconds remaining and the game on the line? Or how the Red Raiders could possibly leave sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter, a presumed 2019 NBA lottery pick and Virginia’s most accurate 3-point shooter, wide open to knock the game-tying three that sent the game into overtime?
The Cavaliers went on to win in the extra period, the culmination of a tournament of miracles and gutty performances from their experienced cast led by the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, junior guard Kyle Guy. All tournament long, Guy and the Cavaliers embodied the “team of destiny” mantra and played like they had nothing to lose — an ironic twist of fate, considering Virginia fell on the wrong side of destiny in 2018 and lost everything.
I’m referring, of course, to Virginia’s infamous 74-54 loss to No. 16 University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the opening round of last year’s tournament — the first and only time in tournament history that a No. 16 seed ever beat a No. 1 seed. Previously, No. 1 seeds were a perfect 135-0.
In the wake of that unthinkable loss, the Cavaliers faced an immense amount of media scrutiny. Many called into question head coach Tony Bennett’s fastidious coaching style, which involves slowing the game down to a snail’s pace. Virginia routinely ranks dead last in the nation in possessions per game. On a more personal level, Guy revealed his struggles with anxiety over the past year in a piece with SBNation.com, saying he struggled with the feeling he let his teammates, fans and family down.
Many people, myself included, wrote Virginia off entering this year’s NCAA Tournament. But shame on me for being shortsighted. In my defense, there were countless times throughout the tournament when the Cavaliers were within inches or milliseconds of losing, but somehow, just somehow, didn’t.
Virginia’s unlikely path to redemption started with its first matchup against No. 16 Gardner Webb. The Cavaliers trailed by as much as 14 in the first half before trimming the deficit down to six at halftime, inciting mass panic that they might repeat last year’s catastrophic failure. But Bennett must’ve really riled up the players in the locker room, because they came out hot in the second half and cruised to a 71-56 win.
After safely beating No. 9 Oklahoma then narrowly slipping past No. 12 Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen, Virginia matched up against No. 3 Purdue. After a back-and-forth affair that saw Purdue junior guard Carsen Edwards catch fire from 3-point range, the Cavaliers found themselves trailing by three with five seconds left and Jerome at the free-throw line. Jerome made the first to make it 70-68 but missed the second, giving Purdue a 91% chance to win at that point.
What happened next involved a microscopic margin for error. Virginia junior forward Mamadi Diakite rose above the fray to tip the ball out to midcourt — not short enough for the defense to chase it down, but not long enough for several seconds to tick off the clock. First-year guard Kihei Clark managed to track it down and zip a 40-foot dime to Diakite, who caught the ball and put it up in one swift motion just as time expired. It went through the net, sending the game into overtime, where Virginia won 80-75.
In the Final Four against No. 4 Auburn, Virginia led 54-47 with 5:24 remaining, giving it a 96% win probability. But those odds flipped around historically fast as a frantic Auburn run gave the Tigers a seemingly insurmountable four-point lead with 10 seconds remaining. Guy drained a clutch contested three to pull within one and make it 61-60, but Auburn’s win probability still stood at 93% with five seconds remaining after a free throw made it 62-60.
Against all odds, Virginia again found a way to persevere. This time, its salvation came in the form of a controversial — but ultimately correct — foul call on Auburn junior guard Samir Doughty, who stepped underneath Guy as he shot a 3-pointer with one second left. Guy, an 81.2% free-throw shooter, needed to make all three foul shots to win. There was just a 53.9% chance of that happening, but Guy confidently stepped to the line and nailed all three without so much as grazing the rim to give his team the win, 63-62.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 3 Texas Tech made its march to the national championship game in less dramatic fashion. The Red Raiders employed their trademark suffocating defensive pressure to beat their first three opponents by 15, 20 and 19 points, respectively. That led to an Elite Eight matchup against No. 1 Gonzaga, pitting the nation’s best offensive team against its best defensive one. Defense prevailed, as Texas Tech held the Bulldogs to 69 points, 19 under their season average, while scoring 75 of its own.
Texas Tech then topped Michigan State in the Final Four, 61-51, setting up a matchup between the two best defenses in college basketball. The game was naturally expected to be a defense-oriented slugfest, and Las Vegas set the over/under for the amount of total projected points scored at 119 — the lowest in a National Championship or Final Four game since 2005.
Sure enough, the game’s opening minutes resembled a prehistoric rock fight, with each team’s defense smothering the other’s offense into ugly, contested jumpers at the end of the shot clock. The two teams combined for seven total points over the first six minutes, and viewers braced themselves for a long night.
But to everyone’s surprise, the floodgates opened from there, resulting in one of the most exciting national championship games ever. The two teams combined for 162 points (overtime helped), smashing the over/under by 43 points and marking the highest-scoring title game since 2000.
The usual suspects carried the workload for Virginia, as the trio of Hunter, Guy and Jerome combined for 67 of Virginia’s 85 points. For Texas Tech, it was another story. Sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, the Red Raiders’ leading scorer and projected 2019 NBA lottery pick, struggled mightily early on, shooting 0-6 from the field in the first half. Texas Tech’s secondary offensive playmaker, senior guard and Wauconda, Illinois, native Matt “Black Panther” Mooney, also shot poorly.
Texas Tech found itself relying on an unlikely source for production in redshirt senior guard Brandone Francis, who didn’t start Monday night’s game but led the Red Raiders with 17 points and three 3-pointers. Thanks to the hot shooting of Francis and sophomore guard Davide Moretti (15 points and three 3-pointers), along with the late-game resurgence of Culver, the Red Raiders gained a 68-65 lead with 22 seconds left, giving them a 75.6% win probability.
But Virginia, as a wise man once said in “The Empire Strikes Back,” came up with another “Never tell me the odds” moment, with Jerome finding Hunter in the corner to send the game into overtime.
Although the Cavaliers went on to win by eight, the overtime period was not without drama and controversy. With Texas Tech trailing 75-73 and 1:06 remaining, Moretti chased down a loose ball that was then knocked out of his hands and out of bounds by Hunter. Despite the straightforward play, refs chose to review it. When slowed down frame-by-frame, instant replay showed the ball slightly grazed Moretti’s pinky after being batted by Hunter, causing the refs to change their original call and award the ball — and essentially, the game — to Virginia.
The referees’ micromanagement of such an inconsequential play sparked instant scrutiny across social media, with many asserting the review went against the intended spirit of instant replay, while others pointed out a phantom tripping foul on Texas Tech that the refs failed to review minutes earlier.
But despite all the questionable calls and favorable bounces, Virginia consistently did its part to put itself in a position to win. The Cavaliers knocked down all 12 of their free throws in the extra period, clutching out an 85-77 win to secure the program’s first-ever national championship and complete its seemingly preordained turnaround from Job-level misfortune to Jordan-esque triumph.