TRAXLER: Of all things, offense lifts Cavaliers to national title
MINNEAPOLIS -- Virginia capped one of the best redemption stories in sports history on Monday night, claiming the NCAA championship.
How’d they do it? With offense, of course.
Virginia scored 85 points in that championship game. For a team that averages 71.1 points per game, that’s an explosion.
“To me, that was -- it appeared, from my standpoint, to be a high-level game,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We scored 85 in that setting, so good stuff.”
Of course, overtime helped. The Cavaliers scored 17 points in that five-minute span, finally leaving a pesky Texas Tech club in the dust at U.S. Bank Stadium, and claiming the first national championship in school history. The 162 combined points in the 85-77 win were the most in 19 years in a championship game and both teams made 10 or 3-pointers, the first time that’s happened in the 81-year history of championship contests.
Every basketball fan awaiting the championship game was expecting defense from both the Cavaliers and Red Raiders, and there were copious amounts of that over the weekend and on Monday night. After all, the potential game-winning shot from Jarrett Culver to end regulation was blocked by Virginia’s Braxton Key.
But the nation’s No. 1 team in the KenPom rankings and No. 3 in adjusted offensive efficiency, continued to convert shots on its end of the court. The Cavaliers played most of the game with the lead and forced Texas Tech to rally throughout the contest.
“Forget last year, this is everything you dream of since you're a little kid,” Ty Jerome said. “I'm not even thinking about UMBC right now. I'm just thinking this is a dream come true.”
Virginia got a career-high 27 points from De’Andre Hunter, and 24 points from the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Kyle Guy.
They were 11-for-24 on 3-pointers in the game. That’s not out of character for the Cavaliers, who entered the Final Four as the seventh-best 3-point shooting team in the country, nailing the triples at a rate of 39.4 percent. Guy and Hunter each had four, a case of key players hitting big shots.
In all, Virginia shot 52 percent in the second half, churning out points on 48 percent of its possessions. The Cavaliers were 20-for-23 on free throws and 12-for-12 at the free-throw line in overtime. Pretty good for a team known for defense and against a Texas Tech defense that had grounded the strong offenses of Michigan, Gonzaga and Michigan State in its last three games.
Virginia’s disastrous loss to UMBC last year in the first round of the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed hung over the entire championship run. Bennett said all of the pressure the team has faced since then -- including a number of grueling victories in the NCAA tournament this year -- prepared them.
“The one thing I said to them before in the locker room, I said, you guys faced pressure that no team in the history of the game has faced, well, really all year,” Bennett said. “That, I think, has prepared you for this moment to be able to handle the pressure or the intensity of a national championship game.”
The championship’s run was certainly capped with a complete effort by the Cavaliers.