Shivers, who grew up in eastern Virginia, has been a UVA hoops fan for as long as he can remember. Thielsch got the bug when his brother, four years his senior, decided to attend UVA. Foster didn’t start following the Hoos until she enrolled in the fall, but she quickly became a fan – and converted her family.
“They did not really care about basketball much before,” she said, speaking in the lobby of the team hotel Monday, a huge CBS set glowing behind her. “They sure do now.”
The trio knew they couldn’t miss the Final Four, the long trek notwithstanding. All told, it took them 18 hours to cover the more than 1,100 miles between Charlottesville and Minneapolis. They arrived Saturday morning, just in time to get ready for the Hoos’ 6 p.m. semifinal date with Auburn University.
“It was long,” Thielsch said, laughing. “But we made it fun.”
Amid the essentials they packed were a pair of bright orange-and-blue-striped overalls, borrowed from a friend who could not make the trip. Thielsch donned the dramatic duds for what would turn out to be a dramatic Final Four finish, from Kyle Guy’s clutch, last-second free throws against Auburn to the overtime national championship win.
“For a second, we thought we lost, and we were heartbroken,” Thielsch said, wearing a blue shirt over those same (now lucky) overalls Monday.
He recounted the last few seconds of Saturday’s Final Four game, when Guy was fouled and swished three free throws to put the Hoos up by one point with time expiring, setting off a frenzied celebration in the student section, U.S. Bank Stadium and among Hoos watching worldwide.
“We couldn’t hear the whistle, but soon realized they called a foul, and we still had a chance,” he said. “Then it was insane.”
The student section, Shivers said, was amazing. UVA students arrived three or four hours before each game’s tipoff, just to get a chance to stand on the front row. Once the game started, they led the crowd in many of the same chants that fill John Paul Jones Arena during the regular season, from choruses of “U-V-A! U-V-A!” to spontaneous “To-ny Ben-nett” cheers.
“It’s just been a great time,” Shivers said.
The students erupted again in the final seconds of regulation on Monday, as De’Andre Hunter hit the 3-pointer that would tie the game and send the national championship into overtime.
“During overtime, we were all incredibly stressed, but once we started making free throws, the student section started getting really hype,” Thielsch said. “I can easily say it was a blessing to be there. … It has been (and most likely will always be) my favorite UVA sports moment.” Asked what they liked most about this year’s team, the three students quickly referred to what would become a common theme of the weekend: resilience.
“After last year, all of us are calling this the ‘redemption season,’” Thielsch said, referring to UVA’s shocking first-round loss in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. “It’s a really cool story, going from losing to a 16-seed to the national championship, that could essentially dictate the future of the program.”
Thielsch himself was proof that the grace with which the team handled that defeat – from Coach Tony Bennett to the players to the staff – made an impression on the larger student body, and on younger students like Thielsch. He still remembers something Kyle Guy said about it.
“I saw a video of Kyle Guy, and he said that loss has become part of the story,” something that the players learned from and used to fuel their own storybook ending, he said. “I thought that was really cool.”
An Extra-Special UVA Connection
A few feet away from Thielsch and his friends, behind the CBS set in the atrium of the team’s hotel Monday, alumnus Chris Duffy stood with his two young sons, James and Henry.
Duffy, who now lives in New York City, graduated from the University in 1994. He became a basketball fan as a student and has cheered the team on ever since.