MINNEAPOLIS — Perhaps only one college basketball coach in the country could have brought Virginia back from an emotional hole deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Perhaps only one coach could have put aside the personal disappointment of how Virginia's 2017-18 season ended and focus on how to rebound for the 2018-19 season.
Perhaps only one coach could have held his players' attention when he said one loss, no matter how painful, does not define you, does not determine your future and will not have a negative impact on the season to come.
Tony Bennett led the way for Virginia, thinking, brainstorming and constantly searching for ways to overcome the disappointment of that one, historic loss while praying for the strength to handle the disappointment he felt.
“No,” junior point guard Ty Jerome said. “We couldn’t have done this with any other coach.”
And Bennett couldn’t have accomplished a dream of a season with any other group of players.
All along, though, Bennett kept things in perspective and encouraged his players to do the same.
And they did.
Everything Bennett said, and everything the players did almost from the moment the 2017-18 season ended, came to fruition Monday night.
In the national championship game against Texas Tech, Virginia won 85-77 in overtime. It is Virginia's first national championship in men's basketball.
It wasn’t easy. Twice, Virginia led by 10 points. And as happened so often in this NCAA tournament, the Cavaliers had to remain poised at the end, not to win, but to force overtime and have a chance to win.
“The one thing I said to them before [the game was], ‘You guys faced pressure that no team in the history of the game has faced, well, all year, really,’” Bennett said. “Being down 14against Gardner-Webb [a No. 16 seed in a first-round game this year], and you did not panic in that moment. You fought and you found a way out.
“That, I think, has prepared you for this moment to be able to handle the pressure or intensity of a national championship game. And these guys stepped up.”
But the path to this moment was neither simple nor easy.
In the first game of the 2018 NCAA tournament, Virginia lost to the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Virginia fans are weary to the point of sickness - to the point of anger - of being reminded the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history.
Facts are stubborn things, though.
This particular fact drove the Cavaliers through every offseason workout and every practice and game once the season began.
Bennett was the catalyst for overcoming the disappointment, but he could not get the Cavaliers through the season and to the national championship game on his own.
He needed the players to buy into what he was preaching, especially junior guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. This is a group of players that talks about family and working and playing together, but do not doubt that the rest of the team follows the lead of those junior guards.
“We came together and said we were going to win a national championship, and to be able to hug each other with the confetti going everywhere and say we did it, it’s the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt in basketball.”
Jerome smiled and said, “Are you going to cry now?”
There was irony in that comment because when the players on the podium – Jerome, Guy and De’Andre Hunter – were asked if they had cried, only Jerome said he had.
“When he missed that floater in regulation, I think,” Bennett said, laughing.
Jerome said, “If I had made that, they would have scored and we would have lost. No, when I hugged my mom and dad and my brother, they were crying, so I couldn’t help it.”
And for all his humor, Bennett never failed to show faith in his players. After Jerome missed that shot with 22.5 seconds left and Virginia trailing 66-65, Bennett did not hesitate to call the same play for Jerome in overtime.
“That just shows how much my teammates believe in me, how much he [Bennett] believes in me," Jerome said.
At the end of regulation, though, with Virginia trailing by three, Bennett called for the ball to go to Hunter in the corner for a 3-point attempt.
Guy set the screen to spring Hunter. Jerome made the pass. Hunter made the shot to tie the score. And a total team effort on defense, that ended with 6-foot-8 forward Braxton Key blocking a shot by Jarrett Culver, sent the game to overtime.
Hunter had just five points and made only one of eight field goal attempts in the first half. He finished with a career high 27 points and made seven of eight field goal attempts in the second half. He also had 9 rebounds, second only to Way’s 10.
Guy was clear-eyed after the game, which was early Tuesday morning.
From the start of the season to the end of the season, Guy's response to the UMBC issue was the Cavaliers were driven by something bigger than just winning games this season.
When asked what that might be, his consistent response was, "I think everyone knows the answer to that."
The answer, Bennett knew, was not to coddle the players.
Do not think every mistake in practice or games came with nothing more than a gentle reminder from Bennett that the team had to do better.
He had to get the team through the devastating loss it had suffered, but he wasn't about to go easy on his players because of the loss.
"Coach Bennett always says, 'I know it's hard to play for me,'" Jerome said during the Final Four interviews here. "That's the first thing I tell people [when asked]. I say, 'It's hard, but in a good way.'
"That's why my defense has improved so much since I got here. Everything is super hard, you gotta stay continuous, and the one thing he'll always yell at us for is if we're lazy on defense or if we miss a defensive assignment.
"There's no leeway on the defensive end, and that's what got us here."
Chances are excellent Bennett will have nothing to yell about, at least in anger, for a while.
The Cavaliers, on the strength of Hunter’s superb second-half performance -- “He hit a lot of tough shots,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “He’s a pro.” -- surged to a lead.
When they lost the lead, they never lost their composure.
When the game was tightest and the outlook bleakest, the Cavaliers were at their best.
Losing the first game in the tournament in 2018 was the toughest loss any of the Cavaliers ever had experienced.
But it made winning the final game of the 2019 tournament all the sweeter.