MINNEAPOLIS — The night ended in a Charlotte hotel room and, by the time it was over, morning had arrived. It never really finished, though. Perhaps one could say it came to a close Monday night as the Virginia Cavaliers danced and hugged on the court at U.S. Bank Stadium and celebrated the 2019 NCAA championship.
There was at least a little piece of that UMBC game, though, in their brilliant 85-77 overtime victory over Texas Tech.
Ty Jerome remembers those hours. He was in his family’s room, because the sporting disaster of the No. 1 seed Cavaliers losing to No. 16 seed UMBC — the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history — had been amplified into a genuine crisis by death threats issued against the UVA players.
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“Me, my mom, my dad, my brother. And just a lot of tears,” he told reporters on the court, not long after the nets had been chopped down and “One Shining Moment” had aired on the videoboards. “We couldn’t believe what happened. We thought we were going to win it last year. And we obviously weren’t ready for it.
“I went back to Charlottesville, and I remembered that feeling. I put a plan together for the summer, and we got better.”
Jerome’s mother, Melanie Walker, told Sporting News those hours in the hotel mostly were silent.
“He likes to be really strong, and he worries more so that I’ll be really upset,” Walker said. “And he was saying: ‘It’s OK. I’ll be OK.’ And then I guess I want to say about three weeks later, four weeks, school was over and he came home and he started getting to work. And I started seeing his journal entries, where he writes down every single goal his: what he’s going to work on, what he’s going to do. He has felt, from a really young age, if he writes it down and sees it, he’ll sort of reach that expectation.
“He just said: ‘Next year will be totally different.’”
Walker said he told coach Tony Bennett much the same, sending an offseason text with the message: “’This does not have to be our story. We get to rewrite our story. We have to be positive. We have to get in the gym. We have to do it, and good things will happen.’ And it did.”
The Bennett family has a complicated history with the NCAA Tournament, even though they are one of only two father-son duos to coach in the Final Four. John Thompson Jr. and John Thompson III got there first, when JT3’s Georgetown Hoyas made it in 2007.
Dick had made it in 2000, and it took Tony a half-dozen tries — including three prior opportunities as No. 1 seeds — to make it. But that UMBC game, and the late collapse against Syracuse in 2016, and the two losses to Michigan State were not the only rough March Madness moments for the family.
There also was Dick’s appearance in his one Final Four, with Tony in his first year on the staff after concluding his professional basketball career. That night in Indianapolis, the Pack Line defense worked brilliantly against the Spartans. The mover/blocker offense did not, and the two teams went into halftime wearing one of the most infamous scores in NCAA Tournament history: 19-17.
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Those 20 minutes resulted in a push by the NCAA rules committee to try to limit contact by defenders and juice offenses. It’s possible that — after Bennett resigned suddenly the following autumn, citing health reasons — that sequence of four numbers was a factor in interim coach Brad Soderberg not being chosen to replace Dick, despite leading the Badgers into the NCAA Tournament.
As surely as the stain of the UMBC upset was destroyed with Virginia’s triumph, the 85-77 margin put 19-17 on ice for good. Soderberg can expect he won’t have to hear again about those numbers.
‘I hope not,” he told SN with a chuckle.
Jerome scored 16 points and passed for eight assists, including the slick drive-and-dish for De’Andre Hunter’s corner 3 to tie the game at 68 with 12 seconds left and force overtime. There, the Cavaliers won the game with perfect free throw shooting and stout defense that held Texas Tech to 4-of-11 shooting.
When it was over, there were more tears. But this time it was in public, with hundreds of people around. Some were paying attention to Guy as he gripped his mother tightly, leaving no doubt as he buried his face in her shoulder that he was sobbing away the last remnants of what UMBC had meant.
“It’s like that after almost every single part of the tournament,” Walker said. “Final Eight, Final Four … we don’t get this, to be on the court. So we usually wait until we get to the hotel and he runs in and gives me a big hug.
“I just can’t believe he’s accomplishing these things. And I just couldn’t wait to get over to this side and give him that hug. To see him cry … it’s rare. Those tears of joy were unbelievable.”
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