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HITCHINGS: Virginia’s NCAA Title Win Ranks High Among Greatest Comebacks in Sports History

Opinion Column: From the Nosebleeds

On Monday evening the University of Virginia (UVA) Cavaliers summited the highest mountain in college sports by winning a national basketball championship at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. They bested 67 other teams in the March Madness tournament, which started in mid-March, last defeating the Texas Tech Red Raiders 85-77 in overtime to bring home their first National Championship. That is where this Virginia team’s story ends, but its beginning is over a year ago, at a college basketball team's lowest point, in the last year tournament’s opening round. 

In March 2018, the Virginia Cavaliers, riding the energy of a 31-2 season, with an ACC regular season and conference tournament title on top, looked poised to make a run at an NCAA title. They had been granted a top seeding by the selection committee, gifting them what is traditionally an easy ride to at least the Sweet 16. 

Before any of that glory could come to fruition, they had to get through 16-seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC). A team ranked 166th in the country, according to statistician Ken Pomeroy. A team better known for its chess program than its basketball program found its way into the tournament after winning the American East Conference Tournament on a desperation three-pointer with less than 1 second left to defeat the top-seeded Vermont. It would not be the last one-seed they dethrone.

Prior to the UMBC-UVA game, 16-seeds had lost all 135 opening round games they had played against the one-seed since the bracket expanded. Analysts had fully expected this game to continue that trend, with ESPN giving the Cavaliers a 98.5% chance to win before the game even started. The drama did not come until the second half, where the Retrievers pushed a relentless pace, leading to an earth-shattering 74-54 victory. They did not only beat a one-seed, but also they won by 20. 16-seeds were now 1-135 in the March Madness tournament.

As expected, the loss was crushing to the UVA community. This was an upset that would undoubtedly haunt them for the rest of their existence. No one that watches college basketball will ever forget where they were the first time a 16-seed won a game. They will never forget the UMBC Retrievers. The goal moving forward for the Cavaliers was to make sure no one forgets how they responded to the adversity. 

In a conference littered with some of the top teams in the county, such as Duke and North Carolina, the Cavaliers once again won the ACC regular season title. Once again, they had been granted a top seeding, and once again they would face a relatively unknown team, Gardner-Webb University, in the opening round. The eyes of the nation would be on this otherwise easy win. The support of a nation of 49 states — excluding Virginia — wanted to see Gardner-Webb University win, and after 20 minutes on the court it looked like lightning would strike twice, as Virginia this year was down six points at halftime. 

Luckily for Virginia fans with weak hearts, the Cavaliers came back to win by 15. The curse was over and they could finally move forward in the tournament without worrying about embarrassment. They then took out Oklahoma and Oregon to reach the Elite Eight, and Purdue after trailing by three with 5 seconds left. They then faced Auburn with a trip to the national title on the line, coming back to win thanks to a foul at the literal last second, and three unbelievably clutch free throws by Kyle Guy to reach the promised land: The National Championship game.

The story of the 2019 National Championship game will never be about what happened on the court, it will always be about the exemplification of the value of sports. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Virginia beat Texas Tech 85-77 in overtime to win their first ever National Championship, a year removed from the most unexpected upset in college basketball history. Tears of devastation and embarrassment had turned into those of joy and celebration in a story that Hollywood could not have conjured. 

There have been many great comebacks in sports history. The Boston Red Sox came back in the 2004 American League Championship Series down three games to defeat their rival New York Yankees before winning their first World Series in 86 years. The New England Patriots came back from a 28-3 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in Super Bowl 51. Even here at Rutgers we have been a part of massive comebacks. In the 2006 Pandemonium in Piscataway game against third-ranked Louisville, the Scarlet Knights were down 25-7, before scoring 21 unanswered points for the biggest win in the history of Rutgers’ football program. 

While all of these were massive stories, they do not hold a candle to the last 13 months of Virginia Basketball. Their rollercoaster ride experienced both the lowest possible low, and the highest possible high in this tournament format. People will always remember where they were when UMBC beat Virginia in 2018, but even more unbelievable is the pressure the Cavaliers overcame to win the whole tournament the next year. 

T.J. Hitchings is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring  in journalism and media studies, with a concentration in sports media. His column, “From the Nosebleeds,” runs on alternate Thursdays.


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