MINNEAPOLIS—Yes, there was that game-tying three from the right corner, the one that sent the national championship game to overtime and became yet another moment for Virginia fans to remember and cherish and recreate on their team’s thrilling, redemptive run through this season’s NCAA tournament. There were other treys too — three, in fact — and still more two-point buckets and rebounds that might fit more neatly into the highlight reel of what was ultimately the most brilliant and perhaps final game of De’Andre Hunter’s collegiate career.
But if you want the sequence that best embodied Hunter’s performance on this sport’s greatest stage, you have to look to the early portion of the game, when the 6’ 7” sophomore couldn’t buy a basket. Ten minutes into the game, Hunter had already missed all three of his field-goal attempts when he went up for a layup underneath the basket and was blocked by Texas Tech sophomore Jarrett Culver. Hunter gathered the offensive rebound and went up again, this time denied by senior Tariq Owens. Hunter again collected the ball and went up, and again Owens denied him, but this time Hunter also drew the foul. From the free-throw line he made both shots and came away with his points, and however stymied he had just been was suddenly all for naught.
When the game ended, the Cavaliers having won 85-77 in OT to win their program’s first national title, Hunter’s stat line showed a career-high 27 points (as well as nine rebounds) on 8-for-16 shooting that belied the polarity of his performance. Over the game’s first 18 minutes Hunter missed all seven field goals he attempted; from then on, he made eight of nine, scoring 22 points after halftime and flipping from an illustration of how suffocating the Red Raiders’ defense could be to a catalyst for Virginia scoring on it more efficiently than any opponent did all season.
Early on this game appeared destined to be the kind of defensive slog many critics preemptively declared it would be. The two teams combined for just 10 points over the game’s first seven minutes, with long possessions grinding into desperate jumpers late in the shot clock. Instead of their talents injecting the game with offense, Hunter and Culver, both projected NBA lottery picks, spent the first half locked in a mutually neutralizing duel that prevented either from finding any scoring groove. Culver struggled to score even more than Hunter over the first 20 minutes, heading into halftime 0-for-6 from the field, as Hunter lived up to his billing as the NABC National Defensive Player of the Year and drew inspiration from his individual matchup. “Honestly,” Hunter said after the game, “I wanted to show that I was the better player.”
Hunter had also struggled to get going early in Saturday’s semifinal win over Auburn, prompting the Cavaliers to feed him in the post on the first three possessions of that game’s second half. Coach Tony Bennett said that Hunter “grew up in a way” through that experience, and on Monday point guard Ty Jerome — one of Hunter’s closest friends, and one of Virginia’s most consistent sources of offense in the game — gave Hunter the chance to do so again in the title game. “I think sometimes Ty can sense he’s gotta get his boy going a little bit — and he does,” said assistant coach Brad Soderberg. “He sprayed a couple passes to him that I didn’t even see happening. Ty just has a sense for that.”
“I was just telling [Hunter] to stay aggressive,” Jerome said. “He shoots better than 50% on the year, so more times than not, he’s gonna make it.”
Hunter showed, too, part of why Virginia’s offensive efficiency leaped from good to elite this season (and, to some degree, what it was missing in last season’s historic loss to UMBC, which Hunter missed due to injury). Along with Bennett and his staff tweaking the offense, including granting players more freedom to create and shoot, Hunter’s maturation into a multidimensional, multi-level scorer helped finally give the Hoos the scoring acumen to match their defensive chops. “Once he gets it going...,” Soderberg said Monday, exhaling and shaking his head for emphasis. “Boy, we rode him in the second half, didn’t we?”
The Red Raiders, as historically stout as they had been all season, appeared to have no answer for Hunter after halftime. He drew three fouls on Owens, perhaps Texas Tech’s most essential defender, including his disqualifying fifth foul with 5:46 left in the second half. There was, improbably, no defender near Hunter on his most important bucket. With the Cavaliers trailing by three and less than 20 seconds left in the second half, Jerome blew by his Red Raiders forward Norense Odiase on the perimeter, prompting Culver to collapse to defend the rim. That left Hunter wide open in the corner, where Jerome found him and Hunter buried the shot, knotting the game up with 12.9 seconds on the clock.
“I was feeling it all night,” Hunter said. “Hit me right in my pocket. I just took my time and shot a three. It was on line, it felt good, and I just kept my follow through to make sure.”
A funnier explanation unfolded in the postgame press conference, when a reporter asked about Bennett calling out to Hunter from the sideline during the play.
“He was just telling me the play that we were running, because I don't think I knew it,” Hunter said.
“Yeah, it was a great one,” Bennett said, then cut himself short, realizing the questions at that time were supposed to be answered by his players. “I'm not supposed to talk. Nevermind.”
“Yeah, it was a great play,” Hunter started. “He drew it up—”
“No, I didn't mean that,” Bennett said. “I was saying it was a great screen by Kyle [Guy]. I was trying to tell him, we're running this action, and I thought he'd get it.”
Here Jerome interjected to address Hunter, and the group dissolved into crosstalk. “No it wasn’t, bro,” Jerome said to Hunter. “That was regular. I threw it to you.”
Said Hunter, “It was a great pass and...”
“We’re a little confused on which play you’re talking about,” Bennett said.
There was no such disarray in overtime, as the Cavaliers piled up 17 points (to the Red Raiders’ nine) in five minutes. Three of them came on Hunter’s fourth three-pointer of the night, which put Virginia up by two, a lead they would only expand over the final two minutes, and added an exclamation point to Hunter’s night. “He was just an all-around beast — on the glass, face-up game, hitting threes, guarding Culver,” Jerome said. “He was just all-around doing everything tonight. Unbelievable.”
And here was Hunter’s final play of the night: a defensive rebound on Texas Tech’s final, futile three-point try that Hunter grabbed and began dribbling and bounding up court. As the final buzzer sounded, Virginia’s national championship now secure, Hunter flung the ball underhanded, sending it high and far. There was no one left to deny him, no one left to deny his team.