It’s March, which means that even if you are not normally a college basketball fan, it’s time to check in.
Because March is tournament time, and in the unpredictable and exquisite world that is college basketball, anything can happen. U.Va. fans got a foretaste of the March Madness Magic on Saturday night and, if you’re like me, you’re still smiling.
Saturday was the last home game of the season, and the #4 ranked Cavaliers beat #11 Louisville. The 68-46 thumping was a story in itself, but it was Senior Night in Charlottesville, and if you were a sportswriter, you could lead with any one of the five guys who are graduating:
Malcolm Brogdan bounced back from an early-game slump and finished like the champion he is, leading the team with 17 points (and netting ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors the next day). Mike Tobey snagged 15 points and a career-high 20 rebounds, becoming the first U.Va. player to grab that many boards since 2003. Team prankster Anthony Gill finished with 15 and reminded us all why it’s not just his high school sweetheart (they’re getting married next month, whoop!) who’s crazy about him. Evan Nolte, given a senior night spot in the starting lineup, set the tone for the game just after tip-off by knocking down back-to-back threes (and treating appreciative fans to another of his mega-watt smiles). And, Caid Kirven, a walk-on with a grand total of eight points in his entire college career, brought down the house with his improbable, incredible, almost indescribable end-of-game three-pointer.
If you saw the game (and that last shot, in particular) you’ll understand why one Twitter fan summed it all up like this: U.Va. Senior Night. Brought to you by Disney.
Like a zillion other U.Va. fans, I couldn’t get enough of the press coverage, and I spent the weekend devouring every article I could find. I “liked” a tweet where Coach Tony Bennett said his guys had represented his five pillars well, an accomplishment for which he was thankful. I read a tribute to the five seniors, an online post that came complete with video highlights. And I watched Caid’s shot go in, over and over again, until my face started to hurt from smiling so much.
My favorite piece, though, was about Mike Tobey’s big night.
After a career marked by ups and downs, Tobey had had a particularly discouraging game against Miami. A lot of players might have been tempted to slink off to the showers after that loss, but Tobey took another approach. He met Coach Bennett for lunch.
According to the article, Tobey said that he’d been worried about fouling (a habit that’s plagued him this season), and that he was worried he’d make a mistake. Coach Bennett’s response? “Focus on one thing. Don’t worry about fouling, don’t worry about a force. Just have a reckless abandon.”
And so he did. Tobey went out there on Saturday night and had the time of his life, setting a single-game rebounding record for the arena that left the fans chanting his name. Why the big change?
“Talking to coach actually helped free me up inside,” Tobey said. “I just went out there and played basketball.”
Isn’t that exactly how it is with us? So often, we go through life feeling crippled by our past mistakes, worrying that if we try to play like we were meant to play we’ll get into foul trouble and blow it. Instead of living in freedom – accomplishing our God-given purposes, doing the things he intended for us to do – we stumble around in uncertainty and fear.
But what if we were to stop and have a convo with our Coach? What would he say?
I don’t mean to sound glib or irreverent, but I actually think he’d sound a bit like Coach Bennett. He’d tell us not to worry about fouling, because our mistakes don’t matter to him. “My grace is sufficient for you,” he’d say. “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
He’d remind us to focus on just one thing. He’d say, “Throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance, fixing your eyes on Jesus.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
And, at the risk of over-stretching the bounds of Scripture, I think he’d say, “Get out there and play with reckless abandon.” Maybe it wouldn’t come out exactly like that, but John 10:10 comes pretty close. That’s when Jesus looks around (and you can almost picture him, talking both to his players and to the crowd in the stands) and says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Play with reckless abandon. Live life to the full. That’s the freedom we’re meant to experience.
So to the five U.Va. seniors, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for giving us an amazing four years, and for the lessons you’ve taught us about things like teamwork, selflessness, and passion. May the Lord bless you beyond anything you could ask for or imagine, both now and in the days and years ahead.
And I don’t know if Coach Bennett had John 8:36 in mind when he was talking to Tobey, but to anyone who has ever tasted what it means to be “free indeed,” his words are worth holding onto:
“Just go out there and play free.”
(Photo credit virginiasports.com)