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Tony Bennett, Virginia two wins from gaining redemption

Updated April 5, 2019 - 6:57 pm

MINNEAPOLIS — Tony Bennett offered a scripture verse. It dealt with always being prepared to give a reason for the hope you have, but to do so with gentleness and respect.

It reminded him that there are always worse things in life than the heartache one might feel at a given moment.

Ironically, that was in 2016, after his Virginia basketball team had lost to Syracuse in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Two years later, he needed such guidance like never before.

He told his players almost immediately to own it, that it forever would be part of their legacy, that making the sort of forgettable history the Cavaliers did last season in becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 always would be defined by the outside world as that team’s narrative.

Then he told them to create a new legacy.

To follow one sort of history with another.

“When you get knocked down like that, in a way, you find out how real things are,” Bennett said. “I want the young men in our program to honor the right things. I want them to learn about the joy of life and what will matter most. Sports is one of the greatest classrooms I can think of and adversity maybe the greatest teacher, even though it’s not enjoyable.

“If you learn to use adversity right, it will buy you a ticket to a place you could not have gone any other way.”

This is the place: The journey back from a dark and haunting abyss that was losing to Maryland-Baltimore County by 20 takes another giant step forward Saturday when Virginia plays Auburn in a Final Four semifinal at U.S. Bank Stadium.

How remarkable a story it would be, Virginia’s program answering its lowest moment by being the last one standing when the national champion is crowned Monday night.

What a seed of redemption.

It’s easy now, Virginia as college basketball’s best all-around team this season having advanced to the Final Four, to suggest the UMBC loss was more blessing than curse, that without it, the Cavaliers might not have been as inspired to make this current run.

Maybe. But the blank stares and oceans of tears of 74-54 told a much different story last year.

Monkey off back?

“A lot of people think that a Final Four would cover it,” junior guard Kyle Guy said. “For me, personally, a national championship is the only way to shut everybody up. Sitting up at that podium next to (Bennett) afterward last year, that was life changing for me how he handled it. Coach has taught us that basketball is just like life, and I truly believe that in both life and basketball, everything happens for a reason.

“Getting here has been amazing, the journey itself. But winning it all, then we could finally be satisfied and completely get the monkey off our back.”

They are close to tossing ol’ King Kong to the side because they were as Virginia as Virginia can be this season, ranking second nationally in adjusted offense and fifth in adjusted defense.

The Cavaliers again did everything well and certainly at their own pace, which is why they’re No. 353 in adjusted tempo. Auburn might want to play fast Saturday. Virginia won’t allow it.

Bennett doesn’t start a senior, meaning the Cavaliers have every chance to earn a fourth No. 1 seed in seven years when next year’s bracket is unveiled.

They are officially among the elite of elite.

But that can wait. This is the place now.

Two more wins and the seed of redemption will sprout into a moment as wonderful as last year’s was heartbreaking.

“I didn’t know (the UMBC loss) would get us to a Final Four,” Bennett said. “I just knew that it would deepen us in ways — on the court, off the court, what we believe — and mark us for the right stuff. That was devastating in so many ways that I knew we had to be there for each other in ways we never would have had that not happened.”

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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