COLUMBIA, S.C. — De’Andre Hunter lifted his arms high over his head and smiled broadly, urging supporters of the Virginia Cavaliers to join in the revelry.
The sophomore guard-forward had just connected on a second-half three-pointer for a double-digit lead against Gardner-Webb on Friday, and the Cavaliers were on their way to vanquishing, at least in part, the memory of last season’s historic loss in the NCAA tournament.
They also wiped away a first half that seemed like a recurring nightmare.
Hunter made certain top-seeded Virginia wouldn’t be on the wrong end of an ignominious repeat, scoring 17 of his game-high 23 points in the second half of a 71-56 triumph over the 16th-seeded Runnin’ Bulldogs at Colonial Life Arena.
“It was great,” Hunter said of the three-pointer and ensuing celebration he shared with Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy.
“I was having fun. As Kyle said, I was just being in the moment. I was happy because I was missing some [shots], and when I made that one, I was really excited.
The unbridled jubilation from Hunter stemmed not only from the Cavaliers taking another step in moving beyond last season’s 74-54 stunner against Maryland Baltimore County, when Virginia became the first top seed to lose to a No. 16.
Hunter didn’t play in that game because of a broken wrist, able to provide only vocal support from the bench while watching his teammates unravel in an upset for the ages.
The Cavaliers’ top two-way player and projected NBA lottery pick has insisted he doesn’t ponder what he could have done against the Retrievers if he had played. His performance against Gardner-Webb suggested he certainly was trying to make up for lost time.
“He’s our go-to guy when we need a bucket,” Jerome said of Hunter, who made 9 of 16 shots. “He’s the only guy on the team that has an [isolation] play called for him. He stretches the floor. He makes threes consistently. He drives to the basket. He’s our best on-ball defender. He rebounds. We can’t find something he doesn’t do.”
Hunter’s heroics were necessary after the Runnin’ Bulldogs (23-12) twice jumped to a lead of 14 points, matching the largest deficit the Cavaliers had faced all season. They moved the ball crisply for numerous open shots while Virginia committed eight first-half turnovers, one shy of its per-game average.
Then Gardner-Webb, making the first NCAA tournament appearance in program history, learned how much of a matchup problem Hunter can be. The 6-foot-7 first-team all-ACC selection scored or assisted on 11 points during a 22-5 flurry early in the second half, including a three-point play with 16:16 left that put Virginia in front to stay at 39-38.
On the go-ahead basket, Hunter found a sliver of room along the baseline, rose among several defenders and converted a contested layup while drawing contact. He flexed and screamed cathartically when the ball fell through the netting, and his ensuing bonus foul shot provided the Cavaliers with their first lead of the game.
Hunter’s length factored into a defensive onslaught in the second half when Virginia forced a dozen turnovers. The Runnin’ Bulldogs committed just four in the first half.
“He was tremendous today,” Guy said of Hunter. “He really didn’t try to force much. It was just within the offense, and that’s a beautiful thing. When Ty gets going, Mamadi [Diakite] is all over the offensive glass and guys are hitting shots, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
The Cavaliers also redoubled their efforts to get the ball inside to exploit their significant height advantage. Diakite benefited from the elevated attention directed at Hunter, scoring 17 points, including 13 in the second half, on 8-for-10 shooting with nine rebounds.
“He’s huge,” Diakite said of Hunter. “He’s a very talented guy. I respect his game. I’ve gone against him I don’t know how long now — two, three years? He’s just getting better and better, getting more and more confident, and I think he’s a big piece of the team in order to move forward.”
The combination of Hunter and Diakite contributed largely to the Cavaliers’ 18-4 advantage in points in the paint in the second half. Virginia was minus-6 in that important statistic in the first half.
Virginia’s supremacy inside also allowed its guards wide-open looks from three-point range. Jerome sank a pair from beyond the arc, both from well past NBA range, and Kihei Clark added a valuable three-pointer to close the first half, trimming the Cavaliers’ deficit to 36-30.
“It was a different halftime than last time,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said, referring to one of his assistants yelling at players in the locker room when the Cavaliers were tied with UMBC. “I thought we had fought back, as I mentioned, at the end of the first half to get ourselves in a spot where there was a lot of basketball left.
“It was one thing I said to my staff, and we just talked right before we went in there. I said, ‘Uplift them,’ and we talked about, ‘Don’t panic, but play with fight.’ ”
● OKLAHOMA 95, MISSISSIPPI 72: Rashard Odomes and Christian James scored 20 points apiece, and Kristian Doolittle had 19 points and matched his career high with 15 rebounds as the Sooners blitzed the Rebels in Columbia.
Oklahoma (20-13) scored on eight of its first nine possessions — the only miss was an alley-oop — and led 12-0 less than three minutes in.
The Sooners led the Rebels (20-13) by 17 at halftime, and their 95 points were their most this season.