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What can the Lightning learn from Virginia men’s basketball?

After a shocking first-round loss, the Cavaliers rebounded to win it all. Can the Lightning follow in their footsteps?
Steven Stamkos addressed the media after the Lightning blew a 3-0 lead and lost Game 1 to Columbus last season. Virginia's Isaiah Wilkins was visibly emotional after his team lost to UMBC in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Can Tampa Bay learn from Virginia's rise from that defeat to win the 2019 championship? [DIRK SHADD/BOB LEVERONE | Tampa Bay Times/Associated Press]
Published Sep. 30
Updated Oct. 1

TAMPA — Two days after the Lightning’s Stanley Cup hopes evaporated in Columbus last season, as they were still trying to figure out what went wrong, Alex Killorn knew there was a road map back.

The left wing took inspiration from a team that had completed its own redemption arc a few days prior. Look at Virginia, he said.

The Cavaliers’ basketball team made history when it became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 (Maryland Baltimore County) in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

Stop if this sounds familiar.

Virginia came full circle and won the national championship in April. So how did it bounce back and can the Lightning do the same?

“They wore it like a scar, they didn’t try to hide,” said Dave Koehn, Virginia Sports Properties broadcaster.

Koehn saw a fire in the Cavs that he isn’t sure the team would have had otherwise. It came, not just from recognizing the shocking loss in the NCAA Tournament, but from embracing it.

Point guard Kyle Guy took owning it to an extreme. He even made a photo from the upset his Twitter profile picture for a while. Different players held on in different ways. Guard Ty Jerome wore Carolina blue shoes to remind him of where it happened, in Charlotte.

Virginia's Kyle Guy celebrate after defeating Texas Tech 85-77 in the overtime in the championship of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Monday, April 8, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) [DAVID J. PHILLIP | AP]

The Lightning probably aren’t going to quite that level.

“You can do a little of both (turn the page and own the loss),” Killorn said, “but I don’t think any of us are going to have our Twitter profile pic of us being swept by Columbus.”

The Lightning aren’t running away from it though. They’re answering every question about the collapse. They know they’ll hear jeers, see signs on the road. Jokes will be made at their expense.

Killorn said they put themselves in the situation.

But the Lightning do want to emulate the Virginia fire that Koehn referenced. They will hold on to the Eastern Conference first-round sweep as motivation.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett held up two tickets at his team’s recent championship ring ceremony. In his left hand, a ticket from the UMBC loss; in his right, a ticket from the national title game. He then delivered a version of the line he has been using all along: “If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.”

Killorn agrees with that sentiment. The Lightning had it easy last season. They won more than all but one team in NHL history. They scored more than any team in the past 23 years.

The playoff collapse was the team’s only adversity. You learn from adversity, so Killorn said the Lightning will hold on to that experience.

Kevin Millar figures once you’ve failed you have nothing to fear. The MLB Network analyst played for the Red Sox when they rebounded from a different kind of embarrassment.

Boston Red Sox's Kevin Millar, left, and Manny Ramirez, right, react to the crowd during the Red Sox World Series Championship parade through the streets of Boston, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2004. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) [MICHAEL DWYER | ASSOCIATED PRESS]

The 2003 Red Sox made it farther than last season’s Lightning or the 2017-18 Cavaliers, but they lost in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the AL Championship Series to the Yankees, continuing the 86-year Curse of the Bambino. The next year, they broke the curse.

“That’s about as low as you can have,” Millar said. “The attitude is so much different because you already failed.”

Both Virginia and the Red Sox brought back the nucleus of their teams, as the Lightning have this year, and felt that enabled the positive response.

“It’s big-time,” Millar said. “It’s the experience of going through it together.”

Koehn saw Virginia draw on the motivation of the previous year’s upset in close games last season. The desire for redemption gave the team a sense of purpose.

Millar would tell the Lightning to embrace the pain and use it.

“They know the feeling, the pain you feel when you lose,” he said. “You have to come in better, you have to come in better shape. It’s hard to win a championship.”


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