Zulgad: Exceeding expectations: Virginia-Texas Tech provides a pleasant surprise

MINNEAPOLIS — There was more dread than expectation entering the national championship game of the men’s basketball tournament on Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. The feeling being that Virginia and Texas Tech were destined to provide a low-scoring, defensive-first effort that would serve as a sedative for the 70,000-plus in the stadium and a national television audience.

Virginia’s 32-29 lead at halftime did nothing to dissuade those who were looking for a reason to turn their attention elsewhere. But if they did, they missed what ended up being an entertaining final 25 minutes of the college basketball season as Virginia outscored Texas Tech by eight points in overtime to earn an 85-77 victory. It was the first overtime in the national championship game since Kansas’ 75-68 victory over Memphis in 2008.

Of the three Final Four games played in Minneapolis, two of them turned out to be extremely entertaining.

Monday’s game also provided a significant dose of redemption for a Cavaliers team that a year ago went into the tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and became the first team to lose to a No. 16 seed. A 20-point victory by University of Maryland, Baltimore County marked the first time a 16 seed had knocked off a No. 1 seed in the history of the tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett talked about the UMBC loss on Saturday after the Cavaliers had gotten past Auburn with a controversial one-point victory. Bennett said after that defeat he told Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy that they were going to the postgame press conference with him instead of two seniors.

“(I told them) that’s going to be one of the hardest things, facing that press conference, but it starts now,” Bennett said. “It’s going to mark something. I said, ‘We’re going to get through this, but you guys need to be up there with me, and we need to go through this, and we need to go through next year together. We need each other.’ I knew it was going to be such an important time in our lives no matter how it played out.”

Virginia bounced back and entered the tournament with a 29-3 record and a 16-2 mark in the ACC.

This time Virginia not only won its first-round game as the top-seed in the South Region, beating Gardner-Webb by 15 points, but the Cavaliers also dispatched of Oklahoma, Oregon and Purdue (in overtime) before beating Auburn on Saturday. Monday’s victory gave Virginia its first NCAA title in men’s basketball in its first Final Four appearance since 1984.

The championship came thanks in large part to the young players who learned from that loss to UMBC.

Guy, a junior, finished with a game-high 24 points in 45 minutes on Monday night, while Jerome, also a junior, added 16 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Sophomore De’Andre Hunter, Virginia’s top-NBA prospect who is expected to turn pro, had 27 points (on 8-of-16 shooting) and nine rebounds. It was Hunter’s three-pointer with 14 seconds left from the corner that tied the score at 68 and forced overtime. Hunter somehow ended up unguarded on the play — a mistake that won’t soon be forgotten in Lubbock.

As Bennett and his players left the floor at U.S. Bank Stadium, Virginia fans remained in the building chating “UVA” and attempting to savor the feeling that came a year after heartbreak. For a moment the pressure and disappointment was gone and the celebration was on.

For those who had no investment in who won on Monday night, meaning the majority of us, Virginia had provided a pretty good storyline of resiliency. More importantly, after a rough start, Virginia and Texas Tech had taken us from what looked to be a forgettable, boring, poorly played game and made it memorable.

That was far better than most expected before tip off.