How a rafting trip led to the Cavaliers’ NCAA championship a year ago

In this April 8, 2019, file photo, Virginia players celebrate after the championship game against Texas Tech in the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament in Minneapolis. Virginia won 85-77 in overtime. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

It was a year ago Wednesday that the Virginia Cavaliers won the NCAA men’s basketball championship, and with the world on pause right now, I’m reminded of the time they stopped to reflect, and how that helped them win it all.

In August 2018, head coach Tony Bennett took his team to New River Gorge, in Lansing, West Virginia, to go whitewater rafting. It was chance to bond as a team, and maybe another chance to heal.

Just five months earlier, Virginia had suffered an embarrassing loss to UMBC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers were a No. 1 seed, and they turned out to be the first top seed to lose to a 16-seed.

So the Cavaliers needed, more than usual, to regroup and reboot before the blur of another basketball season started in October.

“Some of our guys were scared to death, and it was even more fun for me to watch them be scared to death,” Bennett said of the rafting experience. “Everything was about, ‘Let’s enjoy this and let’s have fun.’ They tipped the boat on purpose, and you float down the river, and I remember floating down the river and saying to myself, ‘OK, Lord, what is this year going to bring?’”

The Cavaliers’ championship season was a lot smoother than their whitewater rafting trip.

They won the first 16 games of their regular season, and by the NCAA Tournament, they once again were a No. 1 seed. This time, the Cavaliers didn’t trip in the first round: They beat Gardner Webb to start their run.

When Virginia arrived in Minneapolis for the Final Four, among the welcome gifts for all the teams were oars that read “The road ends here.” Maybe it was sign, maybe just a coincidence, but the Cavaliers were the only team that began their championship quest whitewater rafting.

“I believe our steps are ordered,” Bennett said before the championship game. “I think you do everything you can with the abilities you have been given as players and coaches, and then you trust. I believe that and the fact that we are here, I think it says there has been a hand in this. In my life, I would be foolish not believe that.”

That’s not to say Virginia was pre-destined to win the 2019 title: The Cavaliers showed tremendous resolve to win it all. It took an overtime win against Purdue to advance out of the Elite Eight; in the semifinals, they survived in a one-point win over Auburn.

In the championship game, the Cavaliers would also be tested. It took overtime for the Cavaliers to beat Texas Tech and enjoy one shining moment, a little over a year after one of the most embarrassing moments in college basketball history.

“It was a painful gift,” Bennett said of the loss to UMBC. “It did draw us nearer to each other as a team. I knew it was going to be a significant year in all of our lives because of what was going to be coming at us from basketball standpoint. I just knew we needed each other.”

The importance of stopping to realize how much we need each other is a lesson that goes beyond basketball.

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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