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Virginia played loose and focused all season and now fight for a spot in the championship game

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No-tie Tony and some road trip changes are just some of the uncharacteristic moments for the Hoos along the way to the Final Four.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Practice Day Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers arrived in Minneapolis on Wednesday, three days before the Hoos were set to take on the Auburn Tigers in the first of two semifinals in the Final Four. It’s Virginia’s first Final Four trip since 1984, and Tony Bennett’s first Final Four in his career. Over the past two weekends, the Hoos had to exorcise some demons against 16-seeded Gardner-Webb, get past Oklahoma, win a rock fight with Oregon, and outlast Purdue in one of the greatest games in March Madness history.

Every team has dealt with hardships over the course of the season, whether injuries or off-court issues, but no team has endured what Virginia has over the last 385 days. Virginia’s loss to UMBC in last season’s tournament was devastating. Rather than letting it tear them apart, the Hoos banded together and moved forward as a team. Now, Virginia has a shot at a national championship just one year removed from the sport’s biggest upset.

“It’s a blessing to be here,” Mamadi Diakite told reporters during one of the breakout sessions at Friday’s media availability. “It’s been a long journey. Going back year when we lost that game against UMBC, it was a learning experience. It was hard to digest for a few months. After that, we sort of got back to what Virginia does. We didn’t worry about what was going on outside of the perimeter. We kept working.”

Throughout the season, the Cavaliers never shied away from answering the tough questions. After Diakite’s improbable shot swished through to force overtime and the Hoos battled to an 80-75 win over Purdue, Coach Bennett climbed the ladder to cut the remaining bit of the net. As fans, media, and the team looked on, Bennett let out an uncharacteristic yell that seemed to rid himself of all the narratives that had swirled around Virginia with regards to style and postseason play.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Virginia Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a whole season of uncharacteristic moments for the Cavaliers. Tony Bennett ditched his ties, instead rocking an open collar and pocket square on the sidelines. Starting with the matchup against North Carolina game, Bennett stopped having the team do shoot arounds and instead opted for a team activity. “I had to play ‘Name that Tune’ on the piano,” Frankie Badocchi said of the various things they’d do as a team on road trips. “We played Jenga, or just like different games that I guess united the team. It kind of de-focused us from basketball and just brought us all together as a family.”

After Virginia defeated Oklahoma to make the Sweet 16 for the second time since 2016, Bennett dramatically pulled a stuffed monkey off his back in the locker room as the players cheered. “He doesn’t usually do stuff like that,” fifth year Jack Salt said of the move.

Bennett has seemed looser and yet more focused than ever this season. “I’d love it if it [a Final Four] happened, but I decided, you know, after last year, I told our guys, I said, ‘What did that experience teach me?’” he said on the eve of Virginia’s Elite 8 game with Purdue. Bennett continued, saying:

Going through what we did, losing and all those things, and I said, I told the team this, and you’ve heard me say it before, it created a fire in me that wanted to become a better coach and pursue trying to get these guys to as far as they can, a Final Four, National Championship. It’s burning hot, but it did something I think maybe as significant or greater. It made me realize that if that never does happen, I’ll still be okay. Because I’ve been blessed beyond what I deserve. And I think it’s freed me up to go after this as hard as I can, as hard as we can.

Well, it happened. In Minneapolis, the Cavaliers are enjoying every moment of the experience. All season, Virginia has played with the end goal of winning a national championship. Now that moment is within grasp.

“It’s been very enjoyable,” Bennett said of the Final Four experience. “You try to have that balance of being very purposeful for the preparation of the game and also enjoying it. It’s the balance. It can’t be all one or all the other.”

First year point guard Kihei Clark has a businessman-like approach to the whole affair. “We know what we’re here to do,” Clark stated Friday. “This is all great, but we know what we’re focused on. We’re pretty locked in as a team.”

Virginia only has to wait a little bit longer to take the next step on the road to a potential championship as the Hoos tip off with Auburn at 6:09pm ET on Saturday night.