MINNEAPOLIS – It’s right there in the lyrics. The road is long.
As “One Shining Moment” played at U.S. Bank Stadium, the theater for what unfolded as a thrilling National Championship Game, the words leading to one of sports’ great success stories filled the air. The road is long. No one knows that better than Virginia. The Cavaliers completed their year-long journey on the road to redemption on Monday night by winning the program’s first National Championship with an 85-77 overtime victory against Texas Tech.
That path started with a historic loss to UMBC as the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed and wound its way to Minneapolis where confetti rained over the Hoos as the National Champions. The Hoos didn’t take any shortcuts and focused on each step of the way on the journey in between.
“I told them this, it’s about the joy of competition and the fun in the pursuit of a championship,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “That, I love it. They – the quote that my wife – actually, I just saw, she went to that TED Talk, and you talk about being almost prophetic. What that says, if you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way. I don’t know, maybe we could have, but I don’t know, going through what we did last year and having to – you know, it helped me as a coach. All the stuff that they talked about, I think, bought us a ticket to a National Championship.”
The title came with one last round of drama. For the third straight game, Virginia trailed in the final 30 seconds of regulation but found a way to come through in the end. Against Purdue in the Elite Eight, it was Kihei Clark’s laser pass finding Mamadi Diakite in just enough time to force overtime.. Against Auburn in the Final Four, it was Kyle Guy sinking three pressure-packed free throws to secure a win in the final second.
And, finally, against Texas Tech on Monday, it was De’Andre Hunter’s turn. The sophomore forward knocked down two critical 3-pointers to help his team win. Near the end of regulation, UVA trailed 68-65 in the final 20 seconds when the ball found its way to Hunter for a corner 3-pointer with 14 seconds to go that forced overtime. Then with the Hoos trailing by a point halfway through overtime, he lined one up again from nearly the same spot and drained it to give Virginia the lead for good.
Those two baskets provided an exclamation point on what was an incredible showing for Hunter. He poured in 22 points in the second half and overtime, which pushed him to a new career high. Hunter finished with 27 points on 8-of-16 shooting to go with 9 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal. He made just 1 of 8 shots in the first half, but shook that off to make 6 of 7 shots after intermission.
Hunter said he just made sure to be assertive.
“I just was going to be aggressive no matter what, no matter how many shots I missed,” Hunter said. “It was the last game of the year and I just wanted to go out shooting. I just wanted to go out being aggressive.”
Hunter got plenty of help carrying the offensive load against the Red Raiders. Running mates Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome also came through with big games in the biggest game of the year. Guy played all 45 minutes and scored 24 points to go with 3 rebounds and 1 steal. Jerome tallied 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 8 assists. When you add the lines up, he trio accounted for 67 of the team’s 85 points. Mamadi Diakite added 9 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocked shots.
UVA shot 45.8% overall and from the 3-point line. The Hoos made 20 of 23 free throws. They also came up with 16 second chance points courtesy of 11 offensive rebounds.
The Cavaliers needed all of the production they could find since Texas Tech came into the game as the nation’s leader in defensive efficiency. TT allowed 0.860 points per possession this season to lead the nation. Virginia torched the Raiders to the tune of 1.29 ppp, though. Jerome orchestrated much of the success with repeated drives toward the rim that often collapsed the defense before he found an open teammate somewhere on the outside.
“They push baseline so I was able to touch the paint a bunch,” Jerome said. “My floater wasn’t falling. They kept telling me keep going, keep going. So for me, it was just about making the right reads and making the right plays. … If I see Kyle or De’Andre open, that ball is going to be in their pocket as fast as possible.”
Defensively, Virginia tried to be on Texas Tech as fast as possible too. UVA did a good job slowing down two of Tech’s biggest weapons. Matt Mooney had 10 points and 3 assists on 4-9 shooting. Jarrett Culver had 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists but the Hoos made him work for it. Culver made 5 of 22 shots, thanks in large part to Hunter’s ability to defend, though Culver did beat him with a spin move shot with 35 seconds to go in regulation that put Texas Tech in the lead at 66-65.
Culver couldn’t repeat that feat at the end of regulation, though. Culver tried to win it with one second on the clock, but Braxton Key blocked it to create overtime. That was part of a solid performance for Key. He notched 10 rebounds to lead both teams and finished with 6 points and 2 assists.
The Cavaliers held the Red Raiders to 42.9% shooting (33.3% from 3-point range).
“The game was everything we thought it would be,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “I thought it would come down to one last possession, and it did in regulation, and then in overtime it just got away from us a little bit. Nothing but respect for their program, their coaches, their players, their fans. I thought it was a great National Championship Game.”
For Virginia, it was also the conclusion to a great comeback. One year after that historic UMBC loss, the Cavaliers won a program record 35 games and captured the national title. They did it in improbable fashion at the end of three different games too. While that doesn’t erase what happened a year ago in the NCAA Tournament, the Hoos learned to make that part of their story and not their defining moment.
That one came in Minneapolis.
“Forget last year, this is everything you dream of since you’re a little kid,” Jerome said. “I’m not even thinking about UMBC right now. I’m just thinking this is a dream come true, and it’s even more than that because you never even imagine you’ll be able to spend a year with people you actually love, your teammates and your coaches. Not a lot of people get along like we do, so to share this moment with them is unbelievable.”