Hunter provides Virginia's spark with late-game heroics

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Texas Tech band struck up one of the fattest beats of all time, courtesy of multiplatinum rapper C-Murder. On the massive video board, NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes was shown amid a sea of Red Raiders fans while "Old Town Road'' blared out of the sound system, instantly changing the energy inside U.S. Bank Stadium.

Coming out of the media timeout midway through the second half of Monday's national championship, it felt like this was Texas Tech's game to lose. And for a while, it was, until the Red Raiders' thunderous charge was halted by Virginia guard De'Andre Hunter.

In what's likely his last college game before entering the NBA draft as an expected lottery pick, Hunter's late-game heroics will be remembered as the catalyst for what sparked Virginia's first national championship, an 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech.

After going 1-for-8 from the floor in the first half, encountering the same offensive struggles he had faced throughout the NCAA tournament, Hunter scored 22 of his career-high 27 points in the second half and overtime.

With the shot clock off, Virginia entered the final moments of regulation trailing the Red Raiders.

After Norense Odiase extended Tech's lead to 68-65 with a pair of free throws, Virginia's coaches gave Ty Jerome a do-over after he missed a floater on the previous possession by running the exact same play moments later.

Jerome looked to his right as he came off a screen and saw an unguarded Hunter near his team's bench. Making a pass with his inside hand, Jerome hit Hunter, who made his biggest shot of the tournament by burying a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left to spark overtime.

"I was feeling it all night, hit me right in my pocket," Hunter said. "I just took my time, shot a 3. It was on line. It felt good and I just kept my follow-through to make sure."

Virginia coach Tony Bennett credited Hunter for a "great" two-way performance, saying that the guard "saved his best for last" despite struggling to find his shot in the first half. Hunter's defense dictated Jarrett Culver's success in the national championship while the two went blow for blow in this heavyweight battle. Hunter notched nine rebounds and a steal, playing a major part in holding the Texas Tech star to 15 points on 5-of-22 shooting.

Hunter quietly made his way through the NCAA tournament after leading the Cavaliers in scoring (15.6 points) in ACC play. The sophomore hadn't scored more than 14 points in any of Virginia's previous four games, but on Monday, he managed to find his stroke in do-or-die time -- when his team needed him to finish on the offensive end.

"De'Andre usually lets it come, and that -- I think he grew up in a way in this tournament in the second half of the Auburn game, and definitely -- and he was getting his shots. But he just -- you saw it in him, when he puts that into it. Boy, he's special," Bennett said. "But, no, we were trying to get him the ball."

For a team that has been asked ad nauseam about avenging last year's first-round loss to 16-seed UMBC, it seems fitting that Hunter's redemption story would take place in the final game of the season. Like his teammates Jerome and Kyle Guy, who earned the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award after his clutch free throws punched Virginia's ticket to the championship, Hunter found a way to come alive despite having shaky performances throughout the tournament.

Hunter finished the tournament in similar fashion to the way he started. In Virginia's opening-round comeback win over Gardner-Webb, he scored 17 second-half points after a rough start to help his team live another day.

Those experiences from the moments they've lived through to get to this point are what allowed the Cavaliers to combat lead changes, deficits and instances when games appeared all but lost. It's what gave Bennett little pause that players such as Hunter, Guy and Jerome would be able to fight through their struggles and come alive when it matters most.

"The one thing I said to them before in the locker room, I said, 'You guys faced pressure that no team in the history of the game has faced, well, really all year. But being down 14 against Gardner-Webb, and you did not panic in that moment, and you fought, and you found a way out,'" Bennett said. "'That, I think, has prepared you for this moment to be able to handle the pressure or the intensity of a national championship game.' And these guys stepped up."

Hunter's late-game resolve embodies the theme of Virginia's 2018-19 season: A team and its incredible refusal to go away. To pull off the most awe-inspiring moments against Purdue, Auburn and Texas Tech in order to cut down the nets on the final Monday of the season.

Fitting, really, for things to come down this way.

"He always says never get too high, never get too low," Hunter said of Bennett. "If you have a bad game, you're going to bounce back in the next one. If you have a great game, just continue to stay on that streak. Guys like Kyle, Ty, myself, we have great confidence in ourselves and we're going to play through adversity no matter what."