They say time heals all wounds.
Sometimes, when those wounds immediately emblazon your team into the wrong side of College Basketball’s storied record books, action is the only thing that can ease that pain. They don’t heal – you just learn to change your perception, allowing it to fuel your journey as you move forward.
Now, as the dust has settled since Virginia won their first NCAA basketball championship, defeating Texas Tech 85-77 (OT) in one of the most entertaining second halves of championship ball since UNC – ‘Nova in 2016, it’s time to reflect on how Virginia did just that.
Champions. 1 of 1. Nobody else able to claim that status, at least for the next 364 days.
1 year, 1 month, and 8 days after they regrettably accepted another status. This one will last long past the 364-day life of the former.
Let me explain why:
March Madness effectively began in 1939, although the term wasn’t coined until Brent Musberger changed the landscape in 1982. The NCAA committee then began seeding teams in 1979. Expanding to 60+ teams and including 16-seeds in 1985. If my math is correct, including this past 2019 run, that means there have been 136 one seeds to tip-off against a 16-seed throughout the history of the tournament.
To date, that accumulative record is 135-1. 99.3%.
March 16, 2018, Virginia became the first (and only) 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed in March. Peak Madness had finally been reached.
That 16-seed was the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Who, sounding more like a minor league baseball team than D-1 basketball unit, wiped the floor with the consensus No.1 Virginia to the tune of a 20-point shellacking… 74-54.
For many in my generation, Virginia had been that team. They could win in the regular season. They could win in the ACC tournament. They could, absolutely, unequivocally, certainly not win in March.
My birth year is 1996, from then to 2014, they had made it out of the first round once. After finally earning their first 1-seed in over 20 years, UVA made it to the Sweet 16 in 2014.
But 1-seeds are destined for the Final Four. On paper. Virginia would never get there. They could never score, and relied on keeping their opponents to 50 points, leaving them with more bruises than free throws.
Virginia has been given the 1-seed in four of the last six NCAA tournaments. Earning a 2-seed and 5-seed in the other two. They had only made it to the second weekend of the tournament twice, in the previously mentioned 2014 campaign and again in 2016 when they took a trip to the Elite Eight.
For the bracket filling braggadocios like myself, it was a point to tell friends and family Virginia was a lock to leave the court early. It was just what they did. They never really won in the tournament. Never pick them.
Then came the hammer in 2018 – with them losing inexplicably to UMBC and causing everyone to shake their head solemnly while muttering “Never again, never picking ‘em again.”
But America scripts underdogs. America scripts Cinderellas. If we know anything about March Madness, it’s that America LOVES Cinderella.
We collectively double-down on the negatives just to watch in awe as the “hero” re-enters the competitive sphere to cast doubt aside and prove us wrong. Time and time again. Fans relish the role.
Typically, it’s a double-digit seed that captures lightning in a bottle and runs to the Final Four like George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2011, or Loyola Chicago in 2018. This time it was a 1-seed.
Virginia was a Cinderella in the bigger picture, not confined to the typical boundaries of their story beginning and ending in the matter of one month. Virginia’s was a whole year.
1 year, 1 month, and 8 days to be exact.
If there was ever a year for Virginia to once again upset the armchair army of fans across the nation, it was this year. They escaped the jaws of defeat in seemingly impossible ways, time and time again.
But they did it. They ended the draught and silenced many along the way. No longer can Bracket experts like myself (24th and 10th percentiles in the last two years, respectively) consider them as a lock for the first upset.
Resilience and adversity are two of the greatest gifts sports can give an athlete. Adversity was given in abundance to Virginia over that 1 year, 1 month, and 8-day span. Resilience is something that is typically built, and can only be built, through adversity. These kids (all of whom are roughly my age) have experienced lows and highs that many humans never reach or are willing to risk reaching.
As an advocate of the intangible benefits sports bestows upon its athletes, stories like this make me smile as I watch my competitive career in the rearview mirror. I know generation after generation will understand what it means to risk judgement and defeat in the name of competition.
Congratulations to a true Cinderella story, Virginia. As the great Rocky Balboa says, “It ain’t about how hard ya hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep movin’ forward… That’s how winnin’ is done.”
Win they did.