MINNEAPOLIS — De’Andre Hunter received a modest pep talk from Virginia teammate Ty Jerome at halftime Monday night.
“Ty just told me he loves aggressive me,” Hunter said.
With that message in mind, Hunter scored a career-high 27 points, including 22 after halftime, practically willing Virginia to an 85-77 win in overtime against Texas Tech for the school’s first national championship in men’s basketball.
For Hunter, it was also an emphatic response after days of patiently addressing questions about his dearth of scoring over the previous four NCAA tournament games.
Hunter’s explosiveness to the rim and smooth shooting touch from beyond the three-point arc appeared to have betrayed him — and failed to validate his presumptive status as an NBA lottery pick — as Virginia marched toward the national championship game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
All of that and more came back in bunches at the expense of the Red Raiders, who also were making their first appearance in the national championship game and had their own projected lottery pick in Jarrett Culver.
Hunter and Culver went back and forth at points during the second half and overtime, but the Cavaliers’ standout produced the more significant moments, including a three-pointer with 2:09 left in overtime that put Virginia ahead to stay, 75-73.
“What a game to have it,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said of Hunter’s scoring binge. “He was terrific.”
Hunter also made a three-pointer from the right wing in front of the Virginia bench with 12.9 seconds left in the second half for the final points for both teams in regulation.
“We don’t want to give up a three,” Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard said. “Our players, we work on it every single day. I have to go back and watch the film. Looked like some dribble penetration baseline and a really good pass [by Ty Jerome]. In that situation with a three-point lead, we try to play really sound defense.
“But give Virginia credit. So much poise.”
Hunter made 7 of 8 shots including all four of his three-pointers after halftime. He also drew a good deal of attention from Red Raiders defenders, allowing teammates such as Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome more clean looks at the basket.
Making the achievement all the more notable was it came against an opponent ranked first nationally in defensive efficiency.
“I just tried to be aggressive,” Hunter said. “I was aggressive in the first half, I believe, but my shots just weren’t falling, and I just tried to do the same thing in the second half, and my shots were falling.”
The ACC defensive player of the year also added nine rebounds, second on the team behind Braxton Key’s 10. Fittingly, it was Hunter who controlled the final defensive rebound of the game before heaving the ball high above his head as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“That’s just something I always wanted to do,” Hunter said. “Just throw the ball in the air. I see guys do it all the time, and it looked cool to me, so I just wanted the ball, and I just wanted to throw it up.”
Hunter had been having a marginal NCAA tournament, at least from an offensive standpoint, before Monday.
The Cavaliers’ leading scorer during ACC competition (15.6 points per game) had not logged more than 14 points in any of the previous four games since surging for 23 points, including 17 in the second half, in the round of 64 against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb.
Just having an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, however, became increasingly important to Hunter following an offseason shackled with the disappointment of having lost in a historic upset the previous year.
Sidelined for last year’s NCAA tournament with a broken wrist suffered in the ACC tournament, Hunter was able to offer only vocal support from the bench during a 74-54 loss to Maryland-Baltimore County in the round of 64, marking the first time a No. 1 seed had lost to a 16.
But as a sign in the first few rows on Monday night reaffirmed, the journey back has been worth the wait.
“UVA Makes Big Comeback,” the sign read, using the acronym for the Retrievers.
So too did Hunter in the second half against the Red Raiders, who sent waves of defenders at him but mostly to no avail. Culver chased Hunter for long stretches, but so too did Norense Odiase and even 6-foot-10 forward Tariq Owens, his ailing ankle notwithstanding.
Hunter’s scoring came from all over Virginia’s offensive zone, from getting into the paint area for layups and drawing fouls to get to the line as well as from beyond the three-point arc.
Hunter’s two three-pointers during an 8-3 run provided the Cavaliers with a 50-41 lead with 11:42 to play in regulation.
A member of the so-called Big Three on Virginia this season along with guards Kyle Guy (24 points) — who was selected as the Final Four’s most outstanding player — and Ty Jerome (16 points, eight assists, one turnover), Hunter may not be back next season, assuming he declares for the NBA draft.
But this night he’s certain to remember regardless for the rest of his life.
“We knew we were going to bounce back from last year,” Hunter said. “We achieved our dream.”