Virginia: How To Turn Your Worst Loss Into Your Best Win

UVA Kyle Guy
Cavaliers junior Kyle Guy who was named most outstanding player and had 24 points said, “this is how this it was supposed to end.”

Coach Tony Bennet drew inspiration from the Contemporary Christian song “Hills and Valleys” as he described how his University of Virginia team bounced back from one of the most humbling losses in sports history.

They said it would never happen, but one year ago, the Virginia Cavaliers were the first No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed. Ouch — that one really hurt. I remember that loss like it was yesterday.

But now, The University of Virginia Cavliers are champions of the college basketbal world for the first time in men’s program history. In his post-game comments, the Virginia head coach recounted how he drew inspiration from the movie Rocky and used the film as a source of motivation for his players. As well as crediting Rocky, Bennett also mentioned a song by Tauren Wells. The song called “Hills and Valleys” contains these heartwarming, spirit lifting words:

I’ve walked among the shadows

You wiped my tears away

And I’ve felt the pain of heartbreak

And I’ve seen the brighter days

And I’ve prayed prayers to heaven from my lowest place

And I have held the blessings

God, you give and take away

No matter what I have, Your grace is enough

No matter where I am, I’m standing in Your love

On the mountains, I will bow my life

To the one who set me there

In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there

When I’m standing on the mountain aft, didn’t get there on my own

When I’m walking through the valley end, no I am not alone!

You’re God of the hills and valleys!

Hills and Valleys!

Here’s what Coach Bennet had to say after the big overtime win:

“I played a song for them today called ‘Hills and Valleys’ by Tauren Wells,” Bennett shared after the game. “It just means that you’re never alone in the hills and the valleys and we faced those this year. The credit goes to these young men and I can’t wait to celebrate with my wife and my kids and my parents. I do want to thank the Lord and my savior.” https://kfan.iheart.com/featured/mansour-s-musings/content/2019-04-09-this-is-the-song-that-helped-push-tony-bennett-virginia-to-a-championship/

Beyond just the sting of last year’s opening-round loss to the UMBC Retrievers, Bennett has faced numerous questions about whether his defense-first approach was holding back the Cavaliers in the tournament. Despite enjoying a lot of success in the regular season, Virginia had just one Elite Eight appearance in Bennett’s first nine seasons.

Charles Barkley aptly pointed out that Virginia’s best player, De’Aandre Hunter, who went to MY High School, Friends’ Central in Philly, DNP – did not play in last year’s painful loss to UMBC. Hmmmm.

And so this title is an emphatic statement as to Bennett’s tactical acumen. And with only one senior (Jack Salt) on the roster, Virginia might be right back in the Final Four in 2020.

Virginia defeated the Texas Tech Red Raiders 85-77 in Monday’s 2019 NCAA men’s basketball national championship game.

With 12.9 seconds left in regulation, De’Andre Hunter hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 68 and send it to overtime. Hunter stepped up big again in overtime, connecting from long range to put Virginia ahead 75-73 with 2:10 remaining.

Since I’ve lived in Virginia most of my life, I’m so happy for UVA and for Coach Bennet and for the players that endured last year’s cross of a loss which was for them a Calvary.

Theologically speaking, it just proves all over again that a cross always paves the way to a crown. Virginia’s win proves all over again that we oftentimes must endure the lowest of lows before God raises us up to rejoice in the victory that is ours. And it is our destiny that we win.

Coach Jimmy V: Upsets, Comebacks and Turnarounds

UCT Cover

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo is worth a thousand pictures. The image is that powerful. 

Every time I look at the cover photo for Upsets, Comebacks and Turnarounds, a book about God and sports, I get goose bumps. It’s a photo that you almost want to jump into. It’s the party that we all want to crash. It’s the celebration that we all want to be a part of. It’s a picture of pure, unbridled and unapologetic joy. There’s nothing in the world like it. That’s why we need Heaven’s help to get it. It’s unspeakable joy.

Coach Jimmy Valvano experienced this kind of indescribable joy when his team pulled off the upset of the ages and won the 1982 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship. The picture speaks volumes. After the big win, Coach Jimmy V is being carried off of the court by the fans. The FANS!  It’s not that this doesn’t happen often, it’s that it NEVER happens. Being carried off the court or the field by the players? Yes, that’s happened. But to be carried off by fans is unheard of. After this historic win, the excitement and ecstasy of victory was so moving that it moved the fans close to the winning coach to the point that they undertook this unprecedented uprising.

The North Carolina State Wolfpack defeated the heavily favored University of Houston Phi Slamma Jamma team in a NCAA Men’s Basketball Final that will never be forgotten.  Coach Jimmy V’s arms and hands are stretched wide, as the hands and arms of his fans are stretched high to lift him and laud him and raise him and rally around him for the great victory he’d won. And great victories deserve and even demand great celebrations. And that’s what we witness here in this iconic photo.

Joy is great delight, and only comes from something exceptional and unusual. And the 1982 Wolfpack win was truly exceptional. It was a stroke of coaching genius on the part of Coach Jimmy V. The theological tie in is this: isn’t our spiritual victory over sin and Satan by the power of the Cross even more exceptional and extraordinary and moving and marvelous? I believe that Jimmy V’s sports victory is God’s way of giving us a glance and a glimpse of the glorious celebration we will have in Heaven with Him at the end of time.  It’s pure, unspeakable joy, and we don’t have to wait till the end of time to get it.

 We can have this joy in Jesus right now. 

The DiVincenzo Factor

DiVincenzoVillanova-superJumboDonte DiVincenzo winking after a shot against Michigan on Monday. He had 31 points, five rebounds and three assists and was voted Most Outstanding Player in Villanova’s 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Title win.

Credit Ronald Martinez/Getty Images        

Donte DiVincenzo’s name is just like his game: unique and intimidating. I mean, don’t you wish you could have a championship game like Donte DiVincenzo? You know, Villanova’s killer sixth man off the bench who just killed it against upstart Michigan? I mean he KILLED IT! He doesn’t start, and yet he scored thirty-one points, had block after block and timely three pointers to carry his team to victory. It was an impressive performance to say the least. 

One sports writer put it like this: “Had DiVincenzo been in a video game, flames would have been coming off his ball.”

The statistics — 31 points on 15 shots, five rebounds and three assists — still undersell the extent to which DiVincenzo was his team’s fulcrum Monday night. The team’s sixth man, he was the one who stopped the bleeding after the underdog Michigan surprised the 67,831 spectators in the Alamodome and millions more watching on television who had expected a fairly easy victory by Villanova, the top seed.

Before DiVincenzo scored his first basket, Michigan led 14-8. Villanova’s next 8 points were DiVincenzo’s: a 3-pointer, a 3-point play, a jump shot. DiVincenzo responded to ball screens by hitting long 3s from where he was standing or, once, finding Omari Spellman down low on a brilliant bounce pass.

On defense, during one stretch he forced a driving Zavier Simpson into a miss and then, on the next possession, the 6-foot-5 DiVincenzo straight-up blocked an attempted dunk by Charles Matthews. At one point, after back-to-back 3-pointers, DiVincenzo winked at the crowd. He later said he was aiming for Hart.

The moral of the story is this: every team needs a DiVincenzo on their bench because the DiVicenzo factor is so awe-inspiring it sends goose bumps up and down your spine. I’m so happy for him. He could have been a starter on any other team. Instead, he sacrificed playing time and came off of the bench and put the team first. And the end result was another National Championship for Villanova. AND he was rewarded and voted Most Outstanding Player for the Final Four. Wow. March Madness surely went out with a bang.

Sounds like we all could learn a lesson or two from Vilanova and Mr. DiVincenzo. Can you pronounce his name right yet?

Villanova All The Way, Baby!

  

Villanova looks invincible, and virtually, if not totally unstoppable. The Wildcats dismantled Kansas on Saturday night in the second half of the Final Four, and it was so bad it wasn’t worth staying up to watch till the bitter sweet end to hear the final buzzer sound.  So that’s that.  Villanova will defeat Michigan tonight, and it might not even be close.

As for the Cinderella team that everyone wanted to see win it all, the ballerina’s debutant ball ended all too early for Loyola-Chicago. Sister Jean’s prayers took them farther than she thought, but not as far as they wanted to go.

And that sounds just like life. Sometimes our prayers are answered immediately, and other times we must do exactly as the hymn writer says: “watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love.” Sometimes the best place to be is found in Jesus and lost in God.

Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. Sometimes the lessons we must learn are more important than getting an “A” on the test. And sometimes the final grade is not as important as the scores of notes we’ve taken along the way. If March Madness doesn’t teach us anything, then the madness has been for nothing. The life lessons we learn along this sometimes rocky road called life can’t be for naught. They just can’t be.

In everything there is a lesson. One of them is everything is subject to change. Because the only constant is change. We must be ready to roll with the punches and rock with the boat. And that’s what winners that did not expect to win many games, such as Loyola-Chicago and UMBC and Kansas State did.  And the losers that did not expect to lose, or to lose so early, such as UVA and North Carolina and Kansas, had to handle unexpected headache and heartbreak too.

Sports helps us with the fact that in life, you win some and you lose some. And that’s just the way it is. Because it’s not if you win or lose, but how you play the game.

Always Believe In The Underdog!

Loyola Chicago
Loyola-Chicago’s Lucas Williamson, Nick Dinardi and Christian Negron, from left, celebrate winning a regional final NCAA college basketball tournament game against Kansas State, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Atlanta. Loyola-Chicago won 78-62. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

 How can you NOT root for Loyola-Chicago?  They just beat Kansas State and won their way to the Final Four in San Antonio. They’ve turned the 2018 NCAA Tournament into the Loyola-Chicago Invitational. And they’ve got Sister Jean!  What’s not to like?

Loyola-Chicago’s coach, Porter Moser, is the ultimate X’s and O’s kind of guy. He’s all heart with a good head on his shoulders, to boot. He genuinely cares for his kids, and he is a genius when it comes to the game of basketball. Backdoor cuts leading to layups are part of the brilliant game plan he drew up these last two weekends for his upstart underdog team.  Yes, the Ramblers are for real!  They are going to the Final Four for the second time since 1963 when they won the National Championship.  Wow.

 “Unlike the other mid-major 11 seeds that made the Final Four (particularly George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011), this Loyola team looks particularly dangerous. These last two weeks weren’t about a hot shooting run or pulling off a series of mega-upsets. Loyola simply played to its level in every game, got a little bit of late-game good fortune and could be a real threat to get to the championship game”.http://www.wwltv.com/article/news/nation-world/loyola-chicago-takes-down-kansas-state-to-continue-historic-run-to-final-four/507-531843318 For the Ramblers didn’t make it here by accident — they are 31-5, after all — and are a result of a perfect storm of coaching, talent and long hours.

“We understand why people are rooting for us,” guard Clayton Custer said. “It’s why people love this tournament. They love rooting for teams that they don’t see all the time, and maybe they picked us in our bracket. But we know we belong here. We know we deserve to be here.” I love it. 

You just gotta believe.

Why I’m Glad Kentucky Lost  

Kansas State Bruce Webber
Kansas State Coach Bruce Weber and Xavier Sneed

Kansas State just beat Kentucky 61-58 in the 2018 Sweet 16 in Atlanta. And I’m glad.  All week, Kansas State basketball players heard about how they had no chance against mighty Kentucky. College basketball experts said John Calipari’s team was bigger and better than Bruce Weber’s. They said Kentucky steam-rolled through its first two NCAA Tournament games and had an easy path to the Final Four playing in the friendly confines of Philips Arena while K-State got here on luck as much as it did on talent.

 Of all the teams that made it to the Sweet 16, K-State had by far the least respect. So I’m so happy for Kansas State, but not for the reason you think.

I should be glad for a positive and not a negative reason, right? I mean, I should be glad Kansas State won and defeated Kentucky for the first time EVER. But I’m not, at least not really.

I don’t like Kentucky.  I don’t. I don’t like what they represent or what they stand for. Coach John Calipari relishes the fact that he runs a “one and done program”. This year, he started five freshman who will all leave college after only one year.

Blue chip freshman, a.k.a. the best high school players in the Country, fight for the right to play for and wear Kentucky Blue. Why? Because they can and are encouraged to play one year for Coach Cal and then jump to the pros. It’s a known fact and a proven way for some, I said some, to go to the pros and cash in. And the list is long. Nearly 30 former Kentucky players line NBA rosters, with a few teams carrying several Wildcats. And many if not most of them are one and dones, including Karl Anthony-Towns and Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel and DeMarcus Cousins, just to name a few.

 And if that isn’t enough, Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari announced on Wednesday that every member of his basketball team that is eligible — including the walk-ons — will declare for this year’s NBA Draft.

The announcement sounds shocking, even by the much-maligned Kentucky coach’s standards. And here’s my point: while this system may work for Calipari and the players that are successful in the NBA, is this what college basketball is all about? The Kentucky “system” is certainly not the model or the formula for success for your base and basic college basketball program. Period. 

Kansas State may not have one player who will go on to play in the NBA, much less be successful at the professional level. And that’s fine. March Madness, especially this year, is meant to pit the haves against the have nots. This year above any other year in recent memory, the teams with future NBA talent are destined and doomed to fall to the UMBC’s and the Loyola-Chicago’s and the Kansas-States of the world who have their one shining moment in the NCAA Tournament. And I’m glad.

So, let’s end on a positive note. I’m glad that Kansas State, a Nine Seed and understated underdog, defeated a heavily favored No. 5 Seed in Kentucky, with all of that potential NBA talent and all of those NBA factory prodigies. They won a barn burner of a game that went down to the wire. They won with grit and pluck and spunk and coaching. Good for them. I’m glad. In my humble opinion, this Kentucky team was full of egos and hubris and dare I say prima donnas. They felt that they should win just because. 

And so maybe, just maybe, this Kentucky loss will send a signal that staying in school for more than one year is preferable to going for only one year. In other words, what is the real reason you go to college? In sum, the Kentucky system of being an NBA factory is not the preferred solution for college basketball.

March Madness: Upsets, Comebacks and Turnarounds

nevada-coach.jpg
“Nothing feels better than this,” UNR coach Eric Musselman said. “Nothing. Sweet 16!”

UVA made history. So did UMBC and so did Loyola-Chicago and so did Buffalo. UVA was the first No. 1 Seed to lose to a 16 Seed. Likewise, UMBC has the distinct honor of being the first 16 Seed to upset a No. 1 Seed. It’s never happened before, and we all thought that it never would. Correction: we didn’t believe it ever could. But it did.

Loyola-Chicago, an 11 Seed, defeated Miami, a Six Seed, and then turned right around and defeated Tennessee, a Three Seed. Madness.   Buffalo, seeded 13, THIRTEEN!, beat Arizona, a 4 Seed — in the first round. And that’s just for starters.

Xavier, another No. 1 Seed, is gone. North Carolina and Cincinnati, both No. 2 Seeds, are gone too, and so is Michigan State, a No. 3 Seed. Notice a trend here? Houston beat Michigan – no wait, Michigan actually won! And on a buzzer beater by a freshman, no less! Goodness! And it’s going to snow tomorrow night! Talk about March Madness. There was barely a bad game in the tournament. Yes some were tough to watch because of poor officiating and spells of sporadic shooting, but all in all, it’s seems to be the year of the underdog. We could talk all day about UMBC beating UVA, but how about Nevada’s win?

Josh Hall converted an offensive rebound for the tiebreaking basket with 9.1 seconds left as University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) erased a 22-point deficit in the final minutes of a stunning 75-73 victory over Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. UNR’s stirring comeback — the second-largest in tournament history — came just two days after the seventh-seeded Wolf Pack rallied from 14 points down to beat Texas 87-83 for its first NCAA victory since 2007.

The Wolf Pack (28-7) move on to an all-upstart South Region semifinal matchup with 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago (30-5) on Thursday. Cincinnati, the No. 2 seed, never trailed until Hall’s tiebreaking basket but watched its lead disintegrate as it failed to make a basket in the final 5:45.

Nothing feels better than this,” UNR coach Eric Musselman said. “Nothing. Sweet 16!”

This year, perhaps more than any other year in recent memory, there have been more upsets, comebacks and turnarounds than you can shake a stick at. We’ve seen epic victories, historic collapses, and a little of bit everything else in between. It’s so much like living in the Bible days, it’s scary. It’s almost as if the Bible is coming off of the pages, or up out of your smart phone. The holy writ says that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”. That’s what we’re seeing here.

It’s so spiritual, it’s so mystical, and it’s so applicable to everyday life in general and to our lives in specific that we have no choice but to stop and take note. How are the teams who no one picked to win winning with reckless abandon?   

I submit that we must acknowledge the otherworldly dimension of sports. But before you dismiss this notion, hear me out.  Not everyone believes in prayer, but those that do believe that faith and works actually work together for good. Mix some elbow grease in with a good game plan and teamwork and a technical reason for how David defeated Goliath and, viola, you get Loyola-Chicago winning two games in this tournament, and  UBMC trumping over an overconfident and (shall we say overly arrogant?) Virginia team that swears by its “system” come what may.

Miracles do happen on ice and yes, on the hardwood. You may not be a believer, but after this weekend’s upsets, comebacks and turnarounds, I don’t see how you can’t be.