Fall 2021 SS Magazine

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett finds peace and perspective in his faith in Christ

After earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, Virginia couldn’t avoid the talk of losing in the first round again. In 2018, the Cavaliers became the first top seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA tourney history.

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And it came closer to happening again this year than many expected. Virginia found itself down by 14 points to 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb on Friday in the first round, and trailed 36-30 at halftime. But the Cavs outscored the Bulldogs 41-20 in the second half to secure the win. They then cruised in the second round, taking out ninth-seeded Oklahoma, 63-51.

That moved Virginia into the Sweet 16, where it will face 12th-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in Louisville. The Ducks are the lowest seed remaining in the tournament, and have won 10 straight games. Virginia is a heavy favorite, but no team in the nation knows better than to overlook a lower-seeded team.

“It’s unlike anything — well, no college basketball team really in the history of the game has had to go through that,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said last week after his team defeated Oklahoma. “It’s our doing. We were the first 1 seed to lose last year, and then all of a sudden to fight back and become a 1 seed, and then to be in that situation again. You talk about trying to focus in and then getting down, it was real.”

But Bennett doesn’t lose his perspective of where this tournament lies in the grand scheme of things. He says he talks to his players about “living in plenty” and “living in want,” but they need to find their peace and perspective from something unconditional.

“That has to be your center, and you dwell on what is good because there is a bigger picture to all of this,” he says.

For Bennett, his peace and perspective come from his faith in Christ and the love from his family.

“I know I have that in the love of my family — unconditional acceptance and love. That’s huge. And I know I have that in my faith in Christ. That’s, for me, where I draw my strength from, my peace, my steadiness in the midst of things,” he says.

That’s the perspective Bennett will bring into his team’s matchup against Oregon, one of the hottest teams in the country. The Ducks steamrolled fifth-seeded Wisconsin 72-54 in the first round, and 13th-seeded UC-Irvine 73-54 in the second round. They know the pressure is on Virginia as the favorite — but Virginia has been tested plenty before.

“Going through those refining moments, they’re tough,” Bennett said. “But you look back on them and in a way they’re sometimes painful gifts that draw you nearer to what truly matters.”

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