Spring 2021 Magazine

Virginia coach Tony Bennett follows father's faith-filled footsteps into Final Four

Nineteen years ago, Wisconsin emerged from the West Regional as a No. 8 seed to advance to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four. The Badgers took down 9-seed Fresno State, 1-seed Arizona, 4-seed LSU, and in the regional final, 6-seed Purdue. It marked Wisconsin’s first Final Four appearance since 1941.

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In the press conference that followed, Wisconsin head coach Dick Bennett was asked if reaching the Final Four was one of the greatest feelings he’s ever had.

“From a feelings state — euphoria — yes it is,” Bennett said. “But it doesn’t compare with faith, with kids, family, grandkids. Because I know what truly matters, it enables me to enjoy what seems to matter, like this.”

Sitting in the back of the press conference that day was Bennetts’s son, Tony, who was an assistant coach on his father’s staff then, and is now the head coach at Virginia.

“I’ve remembered that quote and I’ve tried my best to live by it,” Tony Bennett said in his press conference Saturday night, after his Cavaliers defeated the same school in the regional final as his father’s team beat 19 years ago. Top-seeded Virginia outlasted third-seeded Purdue to advance to its first Final Four since 1984.

Dick Bennett was on hand to see the game, and afterward told NCAA.com’s Andy Katz, “I’m probably more excited now than I was after our own game (19 years ago).”

Part of that excitement stemmed from the game being arguably the most thrilling of this year’s tournament. Virginia trailed most of the first half, led most of the second half, but needed an incredible last-second shot from Mamadi Diakite to send the game to overtime, where Virginia put it away, 80-75.

The victory was all the more satisfying due to how Virginia’s season ended last year. In 2018, the Cavaliers became the first top seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA tourney history.

“The magnitude of the historic loss that we had, that was very humbling,” Bennett said on the Sports Spectrum Podcast back in October. “It was. You are forced to kind of deal with that and of course, you’re thinking about your seniors, your players. You take stock on everything that happened.”

Despite the shock and disappointment of the loss, Bennett was able to see God at work. “You have to rejoice and give thanks for what God’s doing or how you’re being equipped through the hard situations that we have,” he said on the podcast.

Bennett has referred to last season as one of life’s “painful gifts.” He also showed the team a TED Talk which focused on adversity.

“The quote we use — and I guess I’m full of quotes — but it’s from that TED Talk I showed them at the beginning of the year,” Bennett said after defeating Purdue. “The quote is this: ‘If you learn to use it right — the adversity — it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.’ And I didn’t know if that meant we’d get to a Final Four or do that, I just knew it would deepen us in ways — on the court, off the court — in what we believe and mark us for the right stuff. And I think that is what took place.”

Junior guard Ty Jerome had high praise for his coach after the victory.

“To be the team that gets him to the Final Four, I think that’s what means the most. But he’s believed in every single one of us. He has our best interest at heart, on and off the court. And he’s a great person,” Jerome said.

Virginia, the only No. 1 seed this year to make the Final Four, will face Auburn on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET in the first game of the national semifinals.

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