MINNEAPOLIS — Kyle Guy kept tugging on the brim of his hat, as if he wanted to make sure he was really wearing it. He found teammate Ty Jerome on the confetti-covered court, and they put their arms around each other. With Jerome by his side, Guy took his hat off and read those golden letters again: 2019 NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. He looked at the Virginia logo right beneath those words and smiled in disbelief. He shook his head and then put the hat right back where it belonged.
The junior from Indianapolis moved through the next few moments, the stuff of dreams, as if he were sleepwalking. He climbed the on-court dais with his teammates and, when asked, told CBS' Jim Nantz how much he respects Texas Tech's program. He told Westwood One radio how proud he was of his teammates. He didn't even seem to notice when the Final Four all-tournament team was announced and he was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, an honor he capped with 24 points and four three-pointers in the final. His teammates called him to climb the ladder and cut his piece of the net. Having completed the task, he pumped his fist three times to the Virginia faithful who had stayed until almost midnight to celebrate Virginia's 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech and a long-awaited national title.
If anyone could be the living embodiment of what Virginia has been through the last year, it was Guy.
Last spring, after Virginia lost to No. 16 seed UMBC in the opening round, he had buried his face in his hands at the buzzer and choked back tears during postgame interviews—interviews he had only agreed to do so that the seniors on the team, the ones who wouldn't be able to avenge the loss, wouldn't have to end their careers in public humiliation.
The next day, he returned to campus with his head hung low and his hoodie on. His fiancee, Alexa Jenkins, skipped a week of classes at DePauw University to be with him. He spent the next week talking to her until he ran out of words. "When you're going through something like that, you have to keep talking and keep talking until it doesn't hurt as much anymore," she said. "I let him talk until he didn't need to talk anymore."
Monday night, it was Alexa who was on the brink of tears.
Moments after watching the "One Shining Moment" montage with his teammates back on the dais, Guy wiped the confetti from his hands like sand at the beach and found Alexa. He put his arm around her and held her hand before sprinting back to the locker room. As she watched him run away, her left arm half out of her hoodie from where he'd held her, she ran through the emotions of the last year. "I don't know how to explain it," she said. "He was beaten down [last year]. Really discouraged. But it doesn't matter anymore now, does it?"
Guy eventually came to embrace Virginia's historic loss, the first by a men's No. 1 seed to a No. 16 seed. He changed his Twitter avatar to a shot of his hands on his knees while UMBC players in the background celebrated. He changed his phone's background to another shot from that night. He wrote letters to himself on his laptop. He watched Will Smith motivational videos and TED Talks. And he reread The Alchemist, a book he'd first come across before the UMBC game but which came to mean something so much more after it. He wanted to redeem the win with this championship, but more than that, he wanted the loss to stay with him as a reminder that every experience is an opportunity to become a better person.
"I try to use every single experience I've been through to help me through hard times or good times or any times," he said now. "I think that UMBC is the greatest life lesson I've ever learned."
Without that loss, he wasn't sure he would have come up with the courage to reveal publicly that he had long struggled with anxiety, something he did before this tournament by posting a pair of letters he'd written to himself before and after that game. And without the loss, he wasn't sure that these Cavaliers would have had the resolve to make this NCAA tournament run.
Against Gardner-Webb in the first round, they trailed by as many as 14 points before bouncing back for a 15-point victory. They beat Oklahoma by 12 and Oregon by four. And then, the true tests came. They trailed Purdue by three with five seconds left and won in overtime. They trailed Auburn by four with 17 seconds left and won in regulation thanks to three clutch free throws from Guy. And they trailed Texas Tech by three with 12 seconds left but still took home the title in overtime.
"Every time that we were down or the momentum was changing," Guy said, "I could just feel in my heart and in my head that this wasn't how it ended. I think a lot of the team felt the same way—that we were going to find a way to win no matter what."
After the win over Texas Tech, Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett described the UMBC loss as a scar that doesn't go away completely. "Is the pain gone?" he asked. "I still feel a little 'eh,' because I remember that feeling. But I think we're OK." Guy went even further. Earlier this week, he said that even a national championship couldn't change the fact that the UMBC loss was the best thing that had ever happened to him, besides getting engaged to Alexa.
On his way out of the stadium, with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder and the piece of net sticking out of his hat, he's asked to re-rank those life experiences in light of what he's just accomplished. "The best things ever to happen to me?" he asked. "No. 1 is getting engaged, and it's not even close. No. 2 is UMBC. And No. 3 is the national championship.
"All year, we kept saying, 'If we use this adversity right, it would buy us a ticket to a place we couldn't have gone any other way.' Without that loss, maybe we don't win the championship."
Guy's work in this stadium was almost done. He turned the corner toward the loading dock and walked toward the charter bus. He threw his bag in and began to walk around the front to climb aboard on the other side. And then he noticed something and stopped mid-stride. The bus had already gotten a new custom wrapping that read 2019 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS right after the Virginia logo. He took a photo with his phone and lingered for a second longer, just staring at the words. More than anyone, Kyle Guy knew what it took to make those words a reality.