Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) celebrates with forward John Collins (20) after a made basket in the second half against the Los Angeles Clippers, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Atlanta. The Hawks won 102-95. (AP Photo/Brett Davis)
Photo: Brett Davis/AP
Photo: Brett Davis/AP

One year later, De’Andre Hunter talks Virginia’s title and transitioning to the NBA

From time to time, Virginia alumnus De’Andre Hunter wears a UMBC T-shirt. 

You know, the same Maryland-Baltimore County that became the first No. 16-seed to defeat a 1-seed, knocking off Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2018. A broken left wrist sidelined Hunter for March Madness that year. 

But this shirt, created in part by former teammate Ty Jerome, has “Redeemed” stamped on the front of it because of what happened exactly one year ago — with Hunter at full force in his sophomore season, the Cavaliers made a different kind of history, winning their first NCAA title after a thrilling tournament run. 

“Just embracing it, honestly,” Hunter said of the shirt, and of Virginia’s turnaround. 

It took months for that championship to really sink in for Hunter. He planned to attend the Final Four in Atlanta even if Virginia wasn’t in the mix before the tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus (the NBA suspended play March 11, clipping Hunter’s rookie season with the Hawks short by 15 games). With a year’s perspective, it still strikes Hunter how the Cavaliers overcame close game after close game, with two of their last four games decided in overtime, including their 85-77 win against Texas Tech in the final. 

Hunter, who still keeps in touch with teammates Jerome, Kyle Guy, Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite, along with a few others and some team managers, scored a game-high 27 points in the championship and discussed some of the craziest moments of that tournament with the AJC. 

Q: Can you pick a favorite moment from that tournament run? 

A: That’s tough. I’m not going to say the championship game, because I feel like that doesn’t count, so I’ll say it’s a tie between the Purdue game and the Gardner-Webb game, the first game.

Q: Gardner-Webb because you guys had to get over the hump? (The Cavaliers, a 1-seed yet again, trailed 16-seed Gardner-Webb for most of the first half, but Hunter scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the second half to spearhead a comeback.)

A: Yeah. We were down like 14 in the first half. ... We never explicitly said it, but it was in the back of my head like “... This can’t happen two years in a row.” We made a run at the end of the first half and the second half, we got it together. But for the first, I’ll say 14, 15 minutes in the first half, they were killing us.”

Q: Going into the tournament, had you guys talked as a team about wanting to avenge what had happened the year before? 

A: We never really said anything about it, but it kind of was obvious. Coach Bennett would talk to us all the time, he would bring up UMBC all the time and tell us to use that as motivation. It’s a part of our story and there’s nothing we can do about it, we can only basically change what we did from last year to the next year. So that’s about it. 

Q: When you were injured the year before, I imagine it was tough to have to watch your team lose and you’re not able to help. What was that like? 

A: It was super tough. Especially because we had such a great team and we had great chemistry and we were all close with each other. Those seniors, Isaiah (Wilkins), Devin (Hall), I couldn’t play with those guys anymore, so I feel like that probably was what was hurting me the most in that moment. 

Q: Pretty much every game you guys played, especially from Elite Eight to Final Four to the title game, was insane. But you said the Elite Eight game against Purdue was one of your favorite moments, why does that game stand out to you? 

A: ... Carsen Edwards was going crazy. I think he had 40 something (points) that game. He’s going off. But we’re still in the game, Ty’s hitting his shots, Kyle’s hitting his shots. Me personally, I wasn’t playing that well, but it was just crazy to see. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And obviously the shot by Mamadi to send it to overtime, it was just, I don’t even know. I just imagine being a fan watching that game. That had to be one of the craziest games in the tournament. 

Q: I think it was Diakite who tipped the ball out to the other side of the court? (After a missed free throw by Jerome glanced off the rim, Diakite tipped the ball all the way to the other side of the court, Clark chased it down and served him a long pass just in time for a little chip shot to tie it at 70. In overtime, Hunter had the go-ahead layup to make it 76-75 with 26 seconds remaining). 

A: He tipped it out to halfcourt. He probably didn’t do that on purpose. And that’s like the only player that could get the ball on the court at that time, Kihei, and he did. I feel like he got there in a second. And he somehow made the right decision. Me personally, I probably would have caught it and just chucked it. He caught it, passed it to Mamadi, full-court pass, right on the money, and Mamadi hit the shot. I wasn’t even in the game at the time, so I was basically watching like a fan, as well, at the time. I was kind of in shock. 

Q: Did you guys ever talk about that as a team, how crazy that run was? Almost all of those games, you could have lost. There were razor-thin margins. 

A: I don’t think we ever really talked about it during the tournament, but once we won the championship we were like, “... Every game we won except for, like, Oklahoma, we could have lost.” I don’t know. It was crazy. And I know people watching are probably like, we got lucky, and stuff, and I can’t say we didn’t. But we pulled it out each game somehow. When I look back at it, it’s just crazy that I was even a part of it. 

Q: I have to ask you about the end of the Auburn game, were you on the court for that last play, when Guy was fouled? (Guy was fouled as he missed a last-second 3, but made all three free throws, which ended up deciding the game, since the 0.6 seconds left on the clock didn’t give Auburn enough time to set up a play. The final minute was controversial in more ways than one, as it appeared Jerome had double-dribbled while bringing the ball up the court with about four seconds left). 

A: I was on the court for that one. So when (Guy) shot it, I couldn’t see because there was a dude in front of me, so I didn’t have a good view of if he got fouled or not, I just saw him shoot. But I saw the ref blow the whistle. I didn’t know if Kyle saw it. I was just like, ‘It’s not over!’ And he was like ‘I know, I know.’ I was like, “Oh, OK.” He was acting like nothing happened, but he went to the line and knocked down three free throws. I remember after the second free throw, they called a timeout to try and stall him out, and we went to the huddle and people were talking to him and he was just like, “Bro, just leave me alone right now. I’m good. I’m good.” I’d probably feel the same way. He went to the line and made it, it was good, and sent us to the championship.

Q: What was the end of that Texas Tech game like for you, when they had been playing from behind pretty much the whole game but surged late? (With about 13 seconds to play, Hunter hit a  3 from the corner to tie it at 68, which ended up getting Virginia to overtime).

A: They did. ... I think we were up by double-digits at one point, and I was like, yeah, it’s over, but they came back. They were hitting shot after shot. I felt like they weren’t missing at a point in the game, and I felt like we couldn’t get anything to go. I was like, come on. I think Ty went and missed a floater before I hit the 3, and we fouled. … They helped off the corner and I hit the corner 3, and after that, it’s history.

Q: At the end, when it’s finally over, you got that final rebound and you launched the ball. What were the emotions like?

A: Honestly, when I got that rebound, I always used to watch the NBA finals and you always see them throw the ball super high. When I got the rebound, that was the first thing that popped into my head, throw the ball as high as you can, because I always wanted to do that. That was my first thought, but after that, it was just kind of like a relief. All the anxiety of the game, you won, and it was just a relief of everything.

Q: What were your biggest takeaways from that tournament run? 

A: I feel like it just showed how resilient of a team we were. Like we talked about, a lot of those games could have gone either way. We were down in a lot of those games but we just kept fighting no matter what. That’s kind of the team we were all year. It just helped us in the tournament. 

Q: ... What’s it been like going from college and Virginia’s style of play, defensive, low-scoring sometimes, to the NBA?

A: “It’s more open and things are more free-flowing and there’s not as many sets and things like that. I watch games from when I was at UVA and I’m like, “Damn, I was slow as hell.” I was barely moving. I wasn’t running and stuff like that. I feel like being in the NBA, things are obviously more fast-paced, guys are more physical. You just have to kind of adapt your game.”

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