By Harry Allison
The Virginia Cavaliers that last year unraveled on college basketball’s biggest stage last night more than atoned.
They overcame a late Texas Tech rally to capture the national title 85-77 in the NCAA tournament’s first overtime championship game in 11 years.
De’Andre Hunter (above) scored a game-high 27 points and delivered the night’s most memorable shot at the end of regulation.
With Virginia trailing by three and less than 15 seconds left in regulation, Ty Jerome penetrated the lane, forced the Texas Tech defense to collapse on him and spotted Hunter open in the corner. Hunter made Jarrett Culver pay for leaving him free, drilling a game-tying 3-pointer.
Culver could not answer Hunter to win the game in regulation for the Red Raiders. Braxton Key blocked his attempt at a game-winning baseline jumper at the buzzer, a fitting symbol of a night in which Culver went 5-for-22 from the field and struggled to create good looks against Hunter in particular.
Texas Tech actually led by three with three minutes to play in overtime because of what happened next. Virginia seized control of the game by reeling off 11 straight points highlighted by a go-ahead 3-pointer from Hunter via an assist from Key.
Long before Virginia began celebrating, those who predicted Monday’s title game would be a low-scoring, hard-to-watch contest were already eating their words. There were terrific displays of shot making against elite defense on both sides as the Red Raiders erased a 10-point second-half deficit and the Cavaliers responded with late heroics of their own.
Hunter, Jerome and Kyle Guy were brilliant all night for Virginia, combining for 67 of their team’s 85 points against a defense hailed as college basketball’s best. Brandone Francis and Kyler Edwards were especially big off the bench for Texas Tech, making up for Culver’s struggles by combining for 29 points, including five 3-pointers.
That the game was tense most of the way surely came as no surprise to Virginia. The Cavaliers have pulled off one narrow escape after another en route to at last demolishing their reputation as NCAA tournament underachievers.
First, Virginia flirted with doing the unfathomable again before scrambling to recover from an early 14-point deficit against 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb. Next, the Cavaliers didn’t take the lead for good until the final four minutes of a gritty Sweet 16 victory over Oregon.
Then came the two breathtaking finishes they’ll relive in Charlottesville for many years to come. Kihei Clark’s astute three-quarter-court pass and Mamadi Diakite’s soft shot forced overtime at the buzzer against Purdue and Guy’s clutch heroics erased a late four-point deficit against Auburn.
No doubt emotionally spent after all those close calls, Virginia delivered when it counted once more. They were every bit as jubilant after beating Texas Tech on Monday night as they were heartbroken after falling to UMBC last spring.
The roots of this year’s title run sprung from the ashes of that stunning loss.
As UMBC players spilled onto the floor in celebration last year, Guy described how he felt as “a sugar rush of desolation.” Crying uncontrollably, Guy just idled on the floor in a daze until teammate De’Andre Hunter escorted him back to the locker room.
“As soon as I got in the locker room I hugged our seniors and I said ‘I’m so sorry,’ Guy wrote in a long social media post last April. “I went on to sit in the showers and cry alone. I wanted nothing more than my fiancée or mother to come hold me. Coach called us in the huddle and he said his closing remarks. I honestly did not hear one word.”
Instead of asking seniors Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall to join him at the podium, Tony Bennett brought sophomores Guy and Ty Jerome instead. Bennett wanted a pair of returning players to endure that onslaught of tough questions because he felt they needed to take ownership of that loss and learn to use it as motivation for the offseason ahead.
If Guy and Jerome thought the media’s questions were tactless, that was nothing compared to what followed from social media trolls or opposing student sections.
Duke students tried to raise money to fly a former UMBC player to Durham to sit amongst the Cameron Crazies when Virginia visited in January. Guy also received Venmo requests for money from complete strangers trying to recoup their losses from picking the Cavaliers to win their office pools.
To help his players cope with being the target of jokes, Bennett preached a mantra borrowed from a motivational speech that he showed his players at the start of the season. He urged his players to tap into their disappointment from the UMBC loss, telling them over and over, “If you learn to use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place that you couldn’t have gotten any other way.”
Where it has taken Virginia is on a crazy ride unlike any other in NCAA tournament history.
In the 34 years since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, Virginia joins 1987 Indiana and 2015 Duke as the only championship teams who lost in the first round the previous season. Not all upsets are equal though, and neither the Hoosiers nor the Blue Devils rebounded from a loss as historic or crushing as the one the Cavaliers suffered.
For the past year, Guy’s Twitter avatar has been a photo of himself looking dejected and shellshocked after the UMBC upset.
Now he can replace it with something from Monday night, the night the Cavaliers completed one of the great redemption stories.