MINNEAPOLIS — When Aubrey Dawkins’ tip rimmed out at the very last second, it was easy to wonder if Duke was a team of destiny, that narrow escape against Central Florida the close scare so many eventual champions survive.
There was definitely a team of destiny in Columbia, S.C., that weekend. It was Virginia.
How else to explain Virginia’s two least-talented starters combining, with uncommon calm and poise, for the bucket at the buzzer to force overtime against Purdue in the Elite Eight?
How else to explain Ty Jerome getting away with a double-dribble after nearly kicking the ball away on Virginia’s last possession Saturday night against Auburn, down two with mere seconds left, only for Kyle Guy to get fouled while missing the Cavaliers’ last shot from the corner — and make all three free throws?
How else to explain that the Cavaliers took a team rafting trip over the summer as a way to bond and grieve the way their season ended so abruptly, only to be greeted with a ceremonial Final Four paddle upon their arrival in Minneapolis?
Even the ACC semifinal loss to Florida State can be counted as an unexpected blessing, saving the energy that would have been expended against Duke for the NCAA Tournament — and the Cavaliers would need it right away, down 14 to 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb in the first round in an eerie poltergeist of Virginia’s historic stumble a year earlier.
The UMBC game seems so long ago now, deliberately so. After that game, Virginia coach Tony Bennett brought Jerome and Guy to the press conference in Charlotte, a grim and funereal affair, instead of his seniors because he wanted those two to absorb the feeling. The process that led Virginia to this point began in the bowels of the Spectrum Center that night.
“That’s going to be one of the hardest things, facing that press conference, but it starts now,” Bennett said Saturday he told the two players that night. “It’s going to mark something. We’re going to get through this, but you guys need to be up there with me, and we need to go through this, and we need to go through next year together. We need each other.”
It’s almost as if Virginia willingly exchanged the most embarrassing and humiliating loss in NCAA Tournament history for this. Would the Cavaliers have taken that deal, to trade that for a national title?
Of course they would have, that afternoon in Charlotte or now.
“I’ve been through the worst, basketball-wise, OK?” Bennett said. “Let’s keep this in perspective.”
Then again, Virginia should be wary making any such agreements with the basketball gods, who have been known to exact their revenge. N.C. State’s magical run in 1983 was a festival of good fortune from start to finish, the gods smiling upon Jim Valvano and the Wolfpack in a way that makes Virginia’s luck seem positively average, and State hasn’t been back on this stage since. Maryland, in 2002, is the only ACC team other than Duke or North Carolina to win a national title since then.
Still, even though Texas Tech is the best defensive team in the country, it’s hard not to detect a whiff of good fortune in the opponent as well, a team with almost no basketball tradition that would be as random a national champion since Loyola-Chicago in 1963 somehow managed to deny Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati a third straight title. And since Texas Western in 1966, only Connecticut in 1999 has won a title without being in a Final Four before.
If it feels like Virginia’s supposed to win tonight, maybe it’s because it is.