MINNEAPOLIS – Whenever De’Andre Hunter dreamed of a national championship, he also pictured the perfect ending.
“If I won a championship, I wanted to have the ball and throw it up as high as I can,” the Virginia star guard and Friends’ Central High graduate said.
And sure enough, after Texas Tech’s final miss Monday night, Hunter grabbed his ninth rebound of the game, took one dribble and flung the ball when the buzzer sounded up toward the rafters of the gigantic U.S. Bank Stadium, where his Cavaliers fulfilled the dream, knocking off the Red Raiders, 85-77, in overtime for the title.
If this happened to be the way Hunter ended his career before heading into the NBA draft, where he is projected to be a top-10 pick, he couldn’t have picked a more opportune moment or a more perfect stage to do it on.
The 21-year-old sophomore, who could only sit on the bench with a broken wrist watching in agony last year as Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16, provided the game-tying three-point basket with 12.9 seconds left in regulation, then put the Cavaliers ahead to stay in overtime with a trey from near the exact same spot in the right corner with 2:09 to play.
“Last game of the year, I had to go out with a bang,” Hunter said. “I was being aggressive in the first half, my shots just weren’t falling and I just wanted to continue to do that in the second half.”
Hunter went 7 of 8 in the second half and didn’t miss in four three-point attempts, scoring 22 of his career-high 27 points after halftime.
“You’ve got to give him a lot of credit,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “They iso’ed him and he hit just a lot of tough shots.
“I would say a combination of two things. We’d like to have some of those plays back but more importantly, I’d give him a lot of credit. He’s a pro. We could have scrambled at him and ran at him a little bit more and that might be a coaching mistake, but we were dialed in. We knew who he was. He just hit a lot of tough shots.”
Not only did Hunter come up with the big shots, he played lockdown defense on Culver, who is considered another NBA lottery pick. Culver shot just 5 of 22 from the field Monday night.
Hunter’s deeds at both ends — the clutch shooting, the quick feet and length in defending — were reminiscent of another Philadelphia area moment in last year’s Final Four when Donte DiVincenzo came off the bench for 31 points in Villanova’s championship win over Michigan, then left for the NBA where he was the No. 17 pick of the Milwaukee Bucks.
“He made himself a whole lot of money tonight,” ESPN analyst Jay Williams said of Hunter’s performance.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett appreciated Hunter’s versatility in the biggest game of his career.
“He was just named defensive player of the year and his ability to lock in and slide is as good as most,” he said. “I thought that was a great two-way performance, defensively and offensively, in this game and this setting, and he saved his best for last. That tells you there’s something in that young man. He’s got more. He’s scratching the surface.
“But we had to have that because I don’t know of anybody else 1-on-1 who can guard him. I said it comes down to making plays — yes, offensively, but it comes down to making plays defensively. I thought he did that and made Culver earn it certainly.
“I think he grew up in a way in this tournament in the second half of the Auburn game. He was getting his shots but … you saw it in him. When he puts that into it, boy, he’s special."
On Sunday, Bennett remarked how hard Hunter is on himself, and that he has urged him often to “be free out there.” Hunter proved that after halftime when it mattered most.
The celebration lingered well into the night for Virginia and being a champion was all Hunter wanted to think about. When asked how it felt to bring a title home to Philadelphia, he replied, “It’s amazing. It feels even better to bring it back to Virginia, honestly.”
So the dream has been fulfilled. The NBA decision will wait for a little while. Hunter will savor what he and his team have achieved.