De’Andre Hunter’s second-half and overtime performance was basketball poetry in motion — and exactly what his team needed

de'andre hunterAddressing the media late Monday night, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Tony Bennett still had one problem to solve. Minutes after beating Texas Tech and climbing to the top of the college basketball mountain, they still had one play to figure out.

“It was a great play, he drew it up,” Hunter said, pointing to Bennett.

“No, I didn’t mean that — it was a great screen by Kyle,” Bennett said. “I was trying to tell him, we’re running this action…”

“That wasn’t the play coach!” Jerome interjected. “He’s not talking about that play. The three you hit to send it to overtime.”

Then ensued some confusion that the transcript only lists as “(indiscernible bantering back and forth)”

“No, it wasn’t bro,” Jerome continued. “That was regular in. I threw it to you.”

“It was … all right,” Guy said, shaking his head and smiling.

Hunter turned back to the microphone.

“It was a great pass and …” he said as if the exchange hadn’t happened at all, the entire row bursting into laughter.

Bennett and his three stars might not have known exactly what play they were asked about, but Hunter was right regardless of which play it was. It was a great pass. It was a historically great night for Hunter, too, and, as a result a historically great night for Virginia basketball.

***

To say Hunter’s first-half offensive performance left something to be desired would be putting it nicely. He made just one of his eight attempts. But that doesn’t mean his effort was all for naught: The ACC (and NABC National) Defensive Player of the Year had held fellow future potential NBA draft lottery pick Jarrett Culver to an 0-for-6 performance. Plus, Virginia led by three, 32-29, at the break, thanks to a perfect pass from Hunter to Jerome, who hit a three just before the halftime buzzer.

But the Cavaliers needed Hunter to come alive in the second half more than ever. If not now, when? He answered the call in the most major of ways.

It started with an aggressive attack of the basket that got him two free throws. That’s something Virginia had lacked in years past: A player who could attack one-on-one when a basket was needed. Hunter shot 157 free throws this season, including nine in the championship game. That’s the most any Virginia player has shot since Anthony Gill in 2015-2016. Hunter has taken 255 free throws over the past two years, nearly two times as many as the player with the second-most, Guy, all the way down at 135.

A few minutes later, Hunter muscled past Culver to get good position on the block, caught an entry pass and kissed a right-handed mini hookshot off the glass.

When Texas Tech had cut the lead to four, the closest it had been in nearly six minutes, Hunter again took matters into his own hands, drilling a three over Red Raiders dynamo bench player Brandone Francis as the shot clock was running down. A few possessions later, he popped out to the wing, caught a pass from Guy and buried another one to give Virginia a 50-41 lead. He was taking over.

A few minutes later, Hunter got inside position, grabbed an offensive rebound off Guy’s missed three, pump faked, took one power dribble and finished through a foul. “And one!” he screamed, flexing and stomping. Rarely does Hunter show emotion much more than a smile after a made shot, but this, of course, wasn’t just any other game.

“I was really just having fun,” Hunter said. “It was probably the most fun I’ve had all year, especially for this stage and all that was on the line.”

It could have been easy for Texas Tech to fade away with Virginia’s top NBA talent surging and its own struggling, but that was never an option for a Chris Beard team that prides itself on toughness. An 8-0 run from the Red Raiders tied things at 59, but after the teams exchanged free throws, Hunter answered back with a tough pull-up jumper over Culver. 63-61, Cavaliers.

Of course, none of these moments would have mattered had he not made his last attempt of the half. Down 68-65, Jerome sped around a Braxton Key screen, passed up an open layup and fired to Hunter in the corner.

“I was like, ‘I have to make this,’” Hunter said. “That’s exactly what I said in my head, and I shot it.”

Nothing but nylon. He, his 17 second-half points, and his teammates, after one more stop, were headed to overtime.

Hunter had produced halves like that one before. In Louisville a few months ago, he scored 18 in the second half, outscoring the entire Cardinals team in the process. But that performance was fueled by anger after sitting much of the first half with two fouls. This one was fueled by confidence — from him and others — at halftime.

“Ty just told me he loves aggressive me,” Hunter said. “He’s confident in me all the time, but just having that confidence going into the second half, I just knew I could be aggressive, and nothing bad could come of it.”

***

Hunter opened overtime with two more free throws, but Texas Tech’s Matt Mooney answered with a three-ball to give his team the lead. Another jumper from Mooney stretched the lead to three, but Guy got it to within one with two free throws.

Then it was Hunter’s time again. Bennett called for a pin-down screen from Guy, and Guy, who has been the beneficiary of such screens as a shooter so many times in his career, switched roles and set this one perfectly. Hunter again from deep, Hunter good again. Virginia wouldn’t trail again, and Hunter was up to a career-high 27 points.

That didn’t mean his work was done, though. Far from it. A few possessions later, leading 75-73, he tracked down Red Raiders point guard Davide Moretti on the fast break and poked the ball away. After a lengthy replay review, the ball was rewarded back to the Cavaliers. The player who had carried the offense much of the second half and overtime showed exactly why his defensive honors were so well-deserved.

What made this performance so special, though, wasn’t that he set a career high. It was how he set it. He made six of seven shots in the second half with only one, the putback basket through a foul, even bothering to touch the rim. The ball swished through time after time with authority, as if it knew a national championship depended on it.

Hunter rarely forced anything in the final 25 minutes of the game. Of his eight makes on the night, five were assisted. He played within the ball-movement-based offense Bennett had devised. Of course, that still left room for three unassisted baskets, and that’s what helped set this year’s Cavaliers apart. Hunter could give them individual scoring when needed but rarely strayed from the flow of the offense.

His game made NBA scouts salivate. More importantly, it allowed Virginia to celebrate.

On the defensive end, he committed just one foul while helping holding Culver, a premier scorer, to just 5-of-22 shooting. He played 44 of the 45 minutes.

“Honestly, I wanted to show that I was the better player,” Hunter said.

Though Guy ended up winning Most Outstanding Player honors, the game fittingly ended with the ball in Hunter’s hands, and he flung it up as high as he could. He’d later tell reporters that it fulfilled a lifelong championship dream.

It’s a surprise that heave didn’t somehow find the basket, too.

Story by Zach Pereles



uva basketball team of destiny

Team of Destiny: Inside UVA Basketball's improbable run

Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25.

The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.



 
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