MINNEAPOLIS — The coach who some said could not make it to the Final Four addressed the media Thursday, two days before his top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers take on Auburn in what will be UVA’s first Final Four game since 1984.
Virginia’s historic 2019 Final Four run comes one year after the most historic loss in NCAA Tournament history — when #1-seed Virginia lost to the #16-seed UMBC Retrievers.
Following last year’s unprecedented loss, Virginia Head Coach Tony Bennett chose returning players Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy (instead of graduating seniors) to face the television cameras and speak on the team’s behalf after the game.
“It’s going to be one of the hardest things you ever have to do, how you’re feeling and what you’re going to have to respond to, but it’s going to mark your life,” Bennett recalled. “This is going to be something we’re going to try to overcome.”
Virginia ripped through the 2018-19 regular season winning their first 16 games, then 12 of their next 14 (losing just twice to Duke along the way).
After a loss in the ACC Tournament and a very early scare in their first NCAA Tournament game, Virginia now finds itself in the Final Four thanks – in part – to one of the most memorable plays in college basketball history.
“The Play,” as it is now known by some Virginia fans, allowed UVA to tie an Elite 8 game it was poised to lose. By now you know what happened. Junior forward Mamadi Diakite tapped a missed free throw into the backcourt, then sank the game-tying shot after freshman point guard Kihei Clark chased down the loose ball and fired it back toward Virginia’s basket. All of the action occurred with about five second left in the game.
“That shot will go down, the pass and the shot, in Virginia basketball history. From the start of the year, I said [Diakite] is an X-factor for us, and the way he’s played all tournament has been significant,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s praise did not end with the Diakite’s play. It extended upwards — toward his platinum hairdo.
“If it’s like Samson and he’s got to do it, so be it,” Bennett said. “He’s got incredible joy. He’s got an infectious personality. He’s great that way. So I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Joy is a theme with Tony Bennett.
Following Virginia’s shocking loss to Syracuse in the 2016 Elite 8, Bennett quoted the Bible, telling his players, “Joy will come in the morning.”
That morning, for Virginia, has arrived.
“Be grateful for this,” Bennett is telling his team before they play the most important game of their young lives, “but keep your edge to compete because it’s about being ready and prepared. Be thankful, be humble, but you’d better have an edge to play well against Auburn on Saturday.”
Watch Virginia take on Auburn Saturday, at 6 p.m., on CBS 6.