For the first time ever, the Virginia Cavaliers are NCAA basketball’s national champions.

The Cavs won their first title with grit and determination, defeating the Texas Tech Red Raiders, a team who refused to give up. As the Red Raiders came from behind in the final five minutes to force overtime, it appeared they would soon be the team celebrating.

But the Cavaliers had a secret weapon.

Some say it was fate. That the Cavs were destined to win, a reward for enduring one of the greatest disasters of college basketball.

Last year, Virginia was ranked No. 1 in the nation–the favorites to win the national championship. But then, the unimaginable: The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers, a No. 16 (read: lowest) seed in the tournament, blew the Cavaliers out by 20 points, knocking them out of contention.

In 135 attempts, a 16 seed had never defeated a 1 seed (forget the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament).

How in the world could the Cavaliers bounce back from such an epic fail?

In his postgame press conference, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett summed up his philosophy in a single, beautiful sentence:

“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.”

Bennett’s been repeating that quote to his players all season. (He credits his wife with introducing it to him through a TED talk.) But this is much more than a sound bite.

It’s a lesson in emotional intelligence.

What’s emotional intelligence got to do with it?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. Put simply, it’s the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.

That’s what Bennett and his team did. Not one of them would have chosen to endure the historic loss from last year. But while they couldn’t change the past, they grew to realize that they could use the painful emotions that resulted as a catalyst, as motivation.

“It taught me a couple of things in losing that game,” Bennett said in a recent interview. “It sparked a fire in me that I want to compete at a higher level. I want this program to taste a level of success it never has.”

“But it also taught me something that I think is as important or more important,” he continues. “That, if we never do, I’m still okay. Because we were praised at the highest level last year [for our regular season accomplishments]…and it was enjoyable. And then, after losing, we were criticized at the highest level.”

“And neither of them really matter. I still love the game. We still have an opportunity to come back and play. And I think knowing that almost frees you up to go after it harder yet.”

This is emotional intelligence at its finest.

Yes, adversity can produce some of the strongest, most painful emotions. But those emotions can be extremely useful, if you learn to harness them effectively. They can help you find motivation, focus, and most of all–balance.

Because while we all enjoy the good times in life, it’s the challenges–the falls and the failures–that make us stronger.

No, Virginia’s win last night wasn’t fate, or destiny. It was a real-life example of making emotions work for you, instead of against you.

Just a few days before leading Virginia to its first championship, Bennett was asked again about last year’s loss.

“Though it’s not the way I would have chosen, it’s part of our story,” he said. “And if we use it right, it’ll produce something very valuable.”

It certainly has, Coach Bennett.

And that “something” goes far beyond what one could ever accomplish on a basketball court.