In times of tragedy and suffering, sport has a unique ability to uplift the human spirit through distraction or, even better, through victory. Sport’s ability to inspire joy or entertainment becomes even more important when the tragedy itself affects sport.
Such was the case last week when three UVA football players were tragically and senselessly gunned down in a shooting at the University of Virginia. The deaths of Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler, and D’Sean Perry devastated the entire UVA community, as well as several other communities across the country that these young men called home. But the tragedy had a sharp and devastating impact on Virginia’s football program and its fans, who closely followed the careers of these young men and took pride in their accomplishments on the field.
With the Virginia football team rightfully canceling the final two games of its season, all UVA fans hoping to find solace or distraction in the sport turned to Virginia’s basketball program. Both the UVA men’s and women’s basketball teams faced the immense challenge of playing two away games last week. The student-athletes and coaches on these teams were physically far from home, but they attended the Games with heavy hearts and cast their thoughts on the grieving UVA community.
The Virginia women’s basketball team competed in the first UVA sporting event since Wednesday’s shooting against Loyola in Chicago. The team met on Tuesday and made the decision to play the game in honor of the three lives lost.
“We have several players who were very close to these three young men, but even those who weren’t still grappling with the trauma that comes from the senseless act of violence against some of their peers,” said Amaka Agugua, head coach of UVA Women’s Basketball – Hamilton. “We talked about this game as a group and the consensus was that they wanted to play for Lavel, Devin and D’Sean because that was the best way we could honor them.”
Loyola gave the Cavaliers all they could take, but the Hoos responded with a strong fourth quarter and clinched the 68-62 win. Four days later, UVA earned another hard-fought road win against American in Washington, DC to remain undefeated.
“I love this family,” said Coach Mox. “I just told them it takes a lot of guts to come out and play and band together and just fight through adversity. I couldn’t be prouder. And I just told them I love them.”
Last season, the Virginia women’s basketball team won a total of five games all season and finished with a 5-22 overall record. The Cavaliers only got their fifth win on February 20 in the third to last game of the season. In their first year under Coach Mox, the Hoos have won each of their first five games for the first time since 2015.
The UVA men’s basketball team has also experienced a clear trend reversal compared to last season. After a 21:14 last year and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013, Virginia is now 4-0 again for the first time since the 2019/2020 season. And the Cavaliers pulled off that feat despite facing remarkably stiff competition.
Scroll to Next
Four classified teams competed at the Continental Tire Main Event tournament in Las Vegas, each bringing unbeaten records into the weekend. Given all the circumstances the Cavaliers faced, it wouldn’t have been surprising if they went 0-2 in the tournament. Many UVA fans just wanted Virginia to put in a good effort, regardless of the outcome.
Instead, the Hoos were the last team standing in the tournament, returning from Las Vegas with their first consecutive ranked wins since 2019, some championship hardware, and a shiny new No. 5 ranking in the latest AP Top 25 poll.
Virginia capitalized on a massive second-half run and a career effort from Armaan Franklin to defeat No. 5 Baylor 86-79 on Friday. In Saturday’s title game, UVA finished the game on a 14-3 run to pull away from No. 19 Illinois with a 70-61 win to win the championship. Reece Beekman was crucial in both games, hitting a double-double against Baylor and recording 17 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals against Illinois. After Sunday’s game, he was named tournament MVP.
After each of UVA’s epic triumphs, head coach Tony Bennett, thoughtful and articulate as ever, made sure to put things in perspective.
“It feels good at the moment, but because I think that when you have a momentary celebration like this, we know all the more now what really matters – our families, our beliefs, to appreciate the gift of each day you do enjoy it. And it seems important, but by and large it doesn’t matter,” Bennett said after beating Illinois. “When you go between the lines, when you play, when you train, you get into your routine and you go by it , but your heart and mind are never far from our football team, these families, our employees. Everyone.”
Tony Bennett has long earned a reputation for not just being a coach who gets things right, caring about the well-being of his players and winning and losing with class, but also simply for being one of the kindest, most genuine people you will meet ever meet. UVA fans have known this about their basketball head coach for years. But somehow my respect and admiration for Tony Bennett reached another level this weekend when he honored the victims and their families, the Virginia football program and the entire UVA community with his kind and thoughtful words that could not have been better spoken.
“I know there are a lot of downed spirits and heartbroken people and we pray for those people,” Bennett said after defeating Baylor. “To have that performance – it’s just a game – but if it gave any of these guys a moment of joy, thank God for that.”
It’s not about how to start, it’s about how to stop. This applies to basketball as it does to most sports and to life in general. It’s more important to do your best towards the end of the season than to start off hot. But this time was a little different for both the Virginia men’s and women’s basketball teams, who knew how much it would mean to the UVA community if they won.
Tony Bennett was right when he said, “It’s just a game.” But for the countless heartbroken UVA fans in dire need of some cheering, the games the Virginia basketball teams were playing this week would have been just as good Championship games can be. For the first time since 2016, both UVA’s men’s and women’s basketball teams won each of their first four games. It couldn’t have come at a better time.