Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite believes in God, but he wasn’t so sure about all this karma and destiny talk.
Yes, his team made history last year in the worst way, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. But with the run to Monday’s national championship game, which included two close escapes in the Elite Eight and Final Four, words like miracle, luck, fate and pretty much any other English synonym for kismet swirled around the team.
And, well, after the No. 1 seed overcame two blown leads for an 85-77 overtime victory against No. 3 seed Texas Tech at U.S. Bank Stadium to secure its first NCAA tournament title, all that talk of providence doesn’t seem so silly.
Except to the Virginia team, which isn’t so quick to sign away its past year of hard work to some uncontrollable fortune.
“Grit” was Diakite’s explanation.
“We just keep going after it. We don’t give up,’ he said. “For other teams, I guess that they would give up at the end and all be nervous to shoot the ball. But we don’t get there. For every game that we play now the past three games, we’ve been hitting some clutch shots.”
That’s certainly true. Diakite’s own buzzer-beater forced overtime against Purdue in the Elite Eight. Kyle Guy’s last-second three free throws gave the Cavaliers their first title game appearance after they blew a late 10-point lead. It wasn’t quite at the buzzer, but redshirt sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter’s three-pointer with 14 seconds left — after the team again squandered two 10-point leads, one in each half — sent the championship game to overtime, which Virginia dominated.
All this after the Cavaliers’ embarrassing 74-54 loss to Maryland-Baltimore County in the first round of last year’s tournament. Heck, they nearly did it again in this year’s tournament, going down 14 points to Gardner-Webb.
Hunter said those close calls gave the team experience, helping make it a “steady” one that “never wavers.” Braxton Key called the team “calm.”
“Obviously, don’t want to put yourself in that situation. We’ve done that a lot in March,” he said. “But we just had to overcome it. Basketball is never pretty how you want it to be, but you just have to adjust and work with what you’re given.”
Guy said he knew just the will to win wouldn’t be enough for this team. It would have to do everything possible to win. And inexplicably, Virginia did, completing one of the greatest redemption stories in sports. And it wasn’t by anyone’s design but the Cavaliers.’
“You guys faced pressure that no team in the history of the game has faced,” coach Tony Bennett told his team. “And you did not panic in that moment.”