NCAA Championship 2019: Virginia's De'Andre Hunter locks down his rival and his NBA Draft hype

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Virginia Cavaliers were down three. De'Andre Hunter, the sophomore soon-to-be lottery pick for Virginia, stood in the corner, motionless. There were 17 seconds left on the clock when point guard Ty Jerome deked the Texas Tech big who had switched onto him and drove to the rim. Jarrett Culver, the sophomore soon-to-be lottery pick for Tech who'd been guarding Hunter, took two steps toward the driving Jerome to help on the weak side, and Jerome immediately saw Hunter -- wide open, hands ready, a 44 percent 3-point shooter -- and flung him the ball.

One chance, the biggest shot of the 21-year-old's life.

"'I have to make this' -- that's exactly what I said in my head," Hunter said after Virginia's 85-77 NCAA championship game overtime victory. "I shot it, felt good, it was on line." When the ball was in the air, Hunter hopped one, two, three times. "And it went in."

Perhaps you heard that a little more than one year ago, these Virginia Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a 16-seed. The loss to UMBC was as devastating as it was a teaching moment. Head coach Tony Bennett confronted the demons of that game very intentionally with his players over the past year. Kyle Guy kept a photo of that game as the screensaver on his phone to remind himself of the lowest moment of his basketball career, and to inspire him to work harder.

But something that's often forgotten about the biggest upset in college basketball history is that, had Hunter not been out with a broken wrist, it's hard to imagine Virginia losing that game. His versatility and lockdown defense last year was an absolute key to what Virginia does best. And it's even more so this year.

He'd dreamed about this moment. Last April, Hunter watched on television as Villanova beat Michigan. He watched as Donte DiVincenzo went off for 31 points and make five 3-pointers. Nobody expected that from DiVincenzo. Hunter wondered what that felt like, when a guy came out of nowhere to be the hero on the biggest stage. And he thought, Next year, I want to do that.

On Monday night, Hunter's shot -- his third 3 of the game -- tied the game at 68-68 with 12.9 seconds left. Texas Tech couldn't score on its final possession. Then came five more minutes of basketball, the eighth overtime in NCAA title game history. Hunter and the Cavaliers dominated, and finally, up eight points with the clock ticking toward zeros, Texas Tech's Matt Mooney missed a 3, and Hunter grabbed the rebound. He took two big, forceful dribbles, and then – with the Virginia crowd roaring around him, and the horn sounding on Virginia's first national title – he flung the ball as high into the air as he could.

"It's something I've always wanted to do," Hunter said in the locker room. "I've always said, if I won a championship, I want to have the ball and throw it up as high as I can. It came true tonight."

Hunter is a soft-spoken young man with a ferocious style of basketball. As good as he can be on the offensive end -- and on Monday night he was very good, the best he's been in his career, with 27 points on 4-of-5 3-point shooting and nine rebounds -- he is almost always better on the defensive end. Even as he struggled offensively through the first half Monday, he still might have been Virginia's most important player, because he completely locked up whomever he was guarding. 

Typically, that player was Culver, his fellow likely top-10 pick in June's NBA Draft. But mostly because of Hunter's voracious lockdown defense, Culver struggled, making only five of his 22 shots for 15 points, and missing all six of his 3s.

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Hunter skies over Culver in Monday's game. USATSI

"I'm a defensive guy," Hunter said. "The team needs me to be a defensive guy. I don't like when people score on me. I didn't want him to score at all."

"That was a great two-way performance, defensively and offensively, in this game and this setting – and he saved his best for last," Bennett said. "That tells you there's something in that young man. He's got more – he's scratching the surface."

Soon, Hunter will be in the NBA. He has a Paul George-like ceiling: A massive physical presence on the wing who can play elite defense and make shots. But on Monday, he didn't want to think about that next step. He'd rather think about the past. So he spoke about when he took his official visit to Virginia with soon-to-be teammates Jerome, Kyle Guy and Jay Huff

"We talked about winning a national championship, how crazy it would be, the first ones to win a national championship," Hunter said. "We dreamed about it, and it happened." He spoke about how that UMBC loss paved the path for this team. He answered a question about who should play him when the inevitable Hollywood movie is made about this team. (His answer: Will Smith … with Zac Efron as Kyle Guy and Jonah Hill as Ty Jerome.) Most of all, he spoke about living in the moment, and enjoying this as he could.

That's one of the things that was most evident about this Virginia team on Monday night: They weren't tense at all. All game, they were smiling. 

"I dreamed about this as a kid, having a great game on the biggest stage in college basketball," he said.

On Monday night, that's what he did.

You should probably expect a lot more of that down the road.

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