CHARLOTTESVILLE — Inga Wilkerson dropped to her knees and used her hands to cover her tear-filled face on Monday night. Her beloved Virginia Cavaliers had just won their first national championship.

It was a moment decades in the making for Wilkerson, who followed in her father’s footsteps in becoming a University of Virginia men’s basketball fan in the late 1970s. She witnessed the Ralph Sampson-led teams go to the Final Four for the first time but fall short of glory. She lived through the years of irrelevancy that made up most of the 1990s and 2000s.

She experienced victory this week.

Virginia beat Texas Tech in a Monday night thriller and, within hours of the overtime win, a celebration ceremony was scheduled for Saturday at Scott Stadium, normally home to the UVA football team. Wilkerson, who goes to an occasional game in person, knew she couldn’t miss it.

“I’ve waited my whole life for this,” said Wilkerson, of Lynchburg.

Wilkerson was joined by roughly 21,000 fans from across the state at Saturday’s celebration, with fans filling one half of the lower bowl of Scott Stadium. For many, it was a time to celebrate a national champion and revel at the turnaround of a program led by head coach Tony Bennett.

Bennett marshaled the team and coaches onto the stadium field and a makeshift stage to loud cheers from students congregated at the front of the stage and the throng of fans seated on the west side of the stadium.

As the 10th-year coach made the roughly 50-yard walk to the stage, he saw fans dressed in national championship T-shirts and hats. It was a sight he remembered from three months earlier when Virginia played a game at Clemson.

Clemson was celebrating a football national championship on Jan. 12, and as the Virginia team bus pulled onto the campus in South Carolina for a noon tip, Bennett couldn’t help but think to himself what it would be like to have a similar celebration in Charlottesville.

“That day is now,” the normally calm coach yelled into the microphone.

Brad Humphrey, a fan since Sampson dominated the paint from 1979-83, called the celebration “years in the making.”

“To finally see it all come to fruition is just great,” the Fluvanna County resident said.

Saturday’s celebration — coincidentally timed on the university’s 200th anniversary and founder Thomas Jefferson’s birthday — was a high for a fan base that just a year ago experienced the most humiliating loss in NCAA Tournament history when the Cavaliers became the first top seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, falling to the University of Maryland Baltimore County in last year’s opening round.

This year, Virginia is on top.

“The previous year we all got kind of sad, but to come back a year later, and be here, is the best story in college basketball history,” Sampson said during the ceremony. “As sad as we were last year, we’re pretty happy now.”

Between the music — DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win”, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and “The Good Old Song” — the ceremony featured highlight videos of the regular season and March Madness.

One of the videos was set to Kaleena Zanders’ song “Stronger Than I’ve Ever Been,” which details rebounding from adversity. Bennett said he first heard the song watching last year’s U.S. Open and it became the team’s de facto theme song.

Bennett’s teaching personality made Candace Cline of Staunton root for the team harder than she ever had in her decades as a UVA fan, she said.

“He coaches lessons beyond just basketball,” said Cline.

The day was a celebration of Bennett (the crowd chanted “Tony” during the ceremony), a program that went from making history for the wrong reasons to its first title, and an unlikely run that saw Virginia trailing in the final seconds of its final three games.

Said Wilkerson: “This has been the dream team.”

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jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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