Led by De’Andre Hunter and his NBA-ready game, the Cavaliers turned themselves into national champions Monday night, holding off tenacious, ferocious Texas Tech for an 85-77 overtime win — a scintillating victory that came 388 days after a crushing setback that might have sunk a lesser team for years.
But Virginia was better than that.
A season after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 — the one thing that had never happened in a tournament where anything can — the Cavaliers watched a 10-point lead turn into a three-point deficit before Hunter came to the rescue. The sophomore made the game-tying 3-pointer with 12.1 seconds left in regulation, then made another with just over two minutes left in the extra period to give the Cavs the lead for good.
After going scoreless for the first 18½ minutes, Hunter finished with a career-high 27 points, and if he leaves as a lottery pick — well, what a way to go out.
He helped the Cavs bring home the first NCAA championship for a program with a colorful, star-crossed and, now, very winning history.
Nothing came easily — appropriate given where Virginia has been over the last year, with each of its 35 wins, and each of the team’s scant three losses, all punctuated by the reminder that only the end result would serve as the ultimate report card on whether the Cavs could truly shed the baggage of last year.
“I told them, I just want a chance at a title fight one day,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “That’s all I want. ... You’re never alone in the hills and the valleys we faced that in the last year.”
Hunter’s key 3-pointer gave Virginia a 75-73 lead, and after the teams traded possessions, Texas Tech guard Davide Moretti scrambled after a loose ball heading onto Virginia’s end of the court. It appeared it would be Red Raiders ball, but a replay showed Moretti’s pinkie finger had barely scraped the ball. Virginia got possession, and worked the ball into Ty Jerome, who got fouled and made two free throws.
Brandone Francis missed a 3 on the other end, and Virginia pulled away — the first time this game felt remotely comfortable, even after Kyle Guy made a 3 to give the Cavs a 10-point lead with 10:22 left in regulation.
The Cavs went 12-for-12 from the line in overtime to ice this game.
For the Red Raiders (31-7), well, what can you say?
The team full of overlooked grinders refused to quit. They fell behind by 10 twice in this game — seemingly too much in a matchup between two legendary defenses — but just kept coming back.
Jarrett Culver, also lottery- pick material, made a spinning left-handed layup over Hunter with 35 seconds left in regulation to put the Red Raiders ahead 66-65, and after Jerome missed a teardrop on the other end, Norense Odiase got fouled and made two free throws to make it 68-65.
The nation’s best defense couldn’t afford to give up a 3, but Jerome skipped a pass to Hunter, who spotted up and drained it. Culver missed a 3-pointer with Guy in his face with a second left, and we were headed to overtime.
The last five minutes of regulation and the OT featured several one-on-one matchups between the two NBA-bound stars, and Hunter came out the winner. He finished 8-for-16 from the field after an 0-for-7 start. Culver, who stayed in his hometown of Lubbock to see how far he could take the Red Raiders, went 5-for-22 for 15 points, continuing a cold-shooting Final Four; he went 8-for-34 over the weekend.