Entering the National Championship Game last Monday night, Virginia sophomore De’Andre Hunter already cemented a spot in Cavalier lore and likely in the NBA Draft lottery as well. He already earned the nickname ‘Big Game’ Hunter since he routinely delivered for the Hoos too. That’s what a meteoric rise from unknown redshirt to All-American will do.
So ahead of that meeting with Texas Tech, Hunter’s name would be remembered for all that he had done for the Cavaliers. Hunter had a signature shot. The 0.9 banker heist in Louisville. Hunter had a signature move. The high post jab and score. Hunter had a signature dunk. The baseline drive and hammer against North Carolina. Hunter had a signature story. Clinching the ACC Tournament title by making free throws with what turned out to be a broken wrist. He had a clutch game-winner. The strong drive in the final minute of overtime to help UVA drop Purdue and earn the trip to the Final Four.
Hunter had produced some big games before then too obviously. He really arrived on the scene at Virginia Tech and shredded Syracuse from the high post as a freshman. He lit up Dayton in Atlantis. He went toe to toe with Duke’s heralded stars in Durham. He took it to Notre Dame. He got going at Louisville. He rose to the occasion against Gardner-Webb.
But a signature game? Well, Hunter saved that for last.
“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, and that – when he puts that into it, boy, he’s special,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “But, no, we were trying to get him the ball.”
That, in this case, was a completely dominant second half that certainly classifies as special. Hunter scored 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting after halftime to finish with 27 points on 50% shooting in the national title game. In his typically understated way, Hunter downplayed just how impressive that performance had been.
“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. Just staying aggressive. That’s it.”
That aggressiveness led to a string of incredible shots. It started with a simple post-up into a quick bank off the glass, but quickly became a shot-making exhibition.
Hunter stepped into a shot-clock buzzer beater at the top of the key with 13:21 to go in a four-point game. He snapped a one-handed offensive rebound and scored with 5:46 remaining in regulation. On an isolation call with 2:22 remaining in a 61-61 tie, he drove right where Jarrett Culver cut him off, but used a crossover, between-the-legs crossover combination to create space for a go-ahead jumper.
Then there was the best of all at the end. With UVA trailing by three in the final 20 seconds, Ty Jerome fired a pass out to Hunter just in front of the team’s bench where he made a 3-pointer that he followed with several hops as he watched it go in. That sent the game to overtime. Finally with the Hoos down one with 2:10 left, Hunter squared up from nearly the exact same spot and drained another 3-pointer that gave his team the lead for good.
Several times during the stretch run, Hunter turned and let his emotions roar at the Cavalier bench and fans. The usually reserved forward was leaving it all on the floor.
“He doesn’t do it very often [when he’s screaming like that]. He’s just so consistent, so locked in,” Virginia senior Jack Salt said. “He was feeling it today and he had an amazing game. I’m so happy for him. To have the game that he had on this stage to help UVA win their first National Championship in basketball was huge.”
How huge was it? It ranks among the greatest performances in UVA NCAA Tournament history.
Prior to this year’s tournament, a Virginia player scored 25 points or more in a tourney game just 14 times. No one had done it in the Bennett era until Kyle Guy went for 25 against Purdue in the Elite 8, but Hunter topped that with his 27 points. Of the 14 previous times, a Hoo scored 27 or more just nine times with only one coming outside of the first weekend when Bryant Stith poured in 28 in the 1989 Sweet 16 against Oklahoma. (Throw in the fact that Guy produced 24 points in the same game and you’re looking at one of just a handful of simultaneous 20-20 games in UVA tournament history.)
One thing that all nine performances have in common is efficiency. Every player on the list shot 50% or better in the standout scoring game. Hunter hit 8 of 16 shots to reach 27 points. The other eight games all had the same look to them. Richard Morgan made 11 of 22 twice in 1989 to score Virginia’s tournament high of 33 points in both the first and second round. Stith made 9 of 16 in that Sweet 16 game for 28 points and 11 of 21 against Syracuse in 1990 for 30 points. John Crotty made 8 of 13 against Notre Dame in the 1990 tournament opener for 28 points. Cory Alexander made 10 of 18 shots against Manhattan for 27 in the first round in 1993. Junior Burrough made 11 of 15 for 28 against Miami (Ohio) in the second round in 1995. Roger Mason Jr. hit 11 of 19 shots against Gonzaga for 30 in the 2001 opening round. Lastly, J.R. Reynolds made 9 of 13 shots for 28 against Albany in 2007.
Of course, Hunter also added 9 rebounds to his scoring line. Only Burrough had a better second stat with 12 rebounds in that same game against Miami. Hunter also helped slow Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, a fellow NBA Draft lottery hopeful, with that assignment frequently on defense. Culver had 15 points, but on 5-of-22 shooting.
So, yes, Hunter’s performance was his signature game. You can easily argue that it is the signature game in all of Virginia basketball history considering the stage and the result.
“I dreamed about this as a kid, just having a great game on the biggest stage in college basketball,” Hunter said after the win. “There’s still going to be haters, still people saying whatever, but it doesn’t matter to me right now honestly.”
Considering how it all played out, Hunter also secured a spot as a signature recruit of the Bennett era. Joe Harris coming across the country early is on that list. Malcolm Brogdon is too since he put together one of the best careers of anyone to ever wear the orange and blue and then went on to be NBA Rookie of the Year. Teammates Guy and Jerome too.
In the modern recruiting and media world, however, Hunter holds an important place in Bennett’s story. If he is selected in the NBA Draft lottery as expected, he’ll be the highest pick of any player in Bennett’s head coaching career to date. That’s an important selling point or at least a counter-point to any slanted opponent recruiting. Plus, Virginia used Hunter frequently in spots where he was allowed to create his own shot through isolation or within the flow of the offense. Other players have done that under Bennett at UVA, obviously, but the combination of that offensive freedom with his draft status is a significant boost to the brand.
The fact that he accomplished all of it and All-American status to boot within the framework of Virginia’s shared star spotlight is critical too. He didn’t change UVA’s style or alter the culture, he enhanced it. That’s something his teammates noticed the whole journey and one reason someone like one of the winningest Hoos of all time is excited for his teammate’s success.
“He’s a really humble dude,” said Salt, who saw Virginia win 118 games during his four active years. “He’s not a guy that’s going to boast or pump himself up. He’s just humble. He’s a great guy and he’s an amazing basketball player as well. He puts the work in. He deserves everything that’s coming his way.”