Hunter Finally Puts On His Dancing Shoes

By Jerry Ratcliffe

COLUMBIA, S.C. — For three long years, De’Andre Hunter has patiently waited to dance. When that wait ended Friday afternoon, Hunter danced his butt off.

Virginia’s redshirt sophomore — destined to be an NBA lottery pick if you pay attention to that stuff — missed last March’s madness with a broken hand suffered in the ACC Championship game against North Carolina. He watched from the bench while his teammates went down in flames in a historic loss to UMBC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

De’Andre Hunter backs down a Coppin State defender in November at John Paul Jones Arena. (Photo by Jon Golden)

Finally he got his turn against upset-minded Gardner-Webb, another ambitious No. 16 seed, in Friday’s first round of the NCAA South Regional. For 27 minutes of the first half, it looked like an ambush as G-Webb led by as many as 14 points before the Cavaliers whittled that deficit to six by the break.

That’s when Hunter took over the game like only a potential lottery pick can.

When the final media time out arrived with 3:41 remaining in the game, Hunter had outscored Gardner-Webb, 17-14. That is not a typo.

The 6-foot-7 matchup nightmare finished with a game-high 23 points, his ninth 20-point output of the season, as No. 1 seed Virginia rolled to its 30th win of the season in a 71-56 blowout.

“This is the most I’ve ever been excited about a game,” Hunter said afterward.

The emotion was on display early in the second half when the versatile Philly native slammed home a two-handed dunk as he looked skyward and roared loudly, indeed a rare reveal of passion by Virginia’s best player.

“Dre’s not quite Romeo Langford (Indiana’s highly emotional freshman),” laughed Hunter’s teammate Kyle Guy. “Dre doesn’t play with a lot of emotion, so when you see that from a guy who has been wanting to play in this tournament for two years now, it was great to see.”

The dunk was just the beginning of Hunter’s outburst. He went on to score 15 more to spark UVA’s comeback and domination of the second half, leaving the scars of last year’s upset in the dust.

Hunter scored on the Cavaliers’ next possession down the floor and was fouled, converted, giving Virginia a 39-38 lead — it’s first lead of the game — with 16:16 to play. The Wahoos never looked back as they outscored Gardner-Webb, making its first-ever NCAA appearance, 25-5 en route to Blow Out City.

Included in his array of baskets was a pull-up 3-pointer off the fast break on a pass from Ty Jerome to open a 52-41 cushion.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who spent most of halftime calming his players’ nerves and making adjustments, emphatically suggested that his players attack their smaller opponents in the paint and to crash the boards and grab as many offensive rebounds as possible. More rebounds, more chances, more likely to take control.

The Cavaliers had 21 rebounds the second half (G-Webb had 21 for the entire game) and doubled their offensive rebounds production from the first half with eight.

As UVA stormed back, Bennett sat back and watched Guy and Jerome funnel the ball to the talented Hunter. Just let the big dog eat.

“I think [Virginia] made some good adjustments to kind of get it to a spot that was hard for us to guard, and Hunter was … yeah, he’s a monster for us to guard, and most of the country,” said G-Webb coach Tim Craft. “I think [defending Hunter] was difficult for everybody in the ACC this year for the most part, so it was going to be a difficult challenge for us.”

It was somewhat baffling that Virginia’s gameplan wasn’t to exploit the smaller Bulldogs right out of the blocks, but the fact that the Cavaliers went into attack mode to start the second half was comforting to most Wahoos fans who were Googling the nearest bridge to jump from, fearing the humiliation of becoming the second No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16.

Scoring only six points in the first half and also a little concerned of being in a repeat of last year’s NCAA nightmare, Hunter had a little “come-to-Jesus-meeting” with himself at halftime.

“I told myself this was a one-game, lose and go home deal,” Hunter said in the locker room afterward. “I don’t want to go out not being aggressive. So, I tried to be aggressive from the tip in the second half.”

Not the type of player to hunt shots but rather score within the flow of the offense, Hunter began to take over and force his will on the underdog Dogs.

“I feel like this team needs me to be aggressive,” Hunter said. “I’ve heard we struggle when I’m not aggressive.”

He heard right.

“I feel like we’re a lot better when I’m aggressive, so I tried to go out there and do that today.”

In the midst of the dominating second-half run — a Cavalanche if you will — Hunter could sense that the tide had turned.

“There wasn’t a specific moment, but when we went on that run, you could kind of see it on [Gardner-Webb’s] faces,” Hunter said. “You could see they were getting upset. Once you see that on their faces, you have to take advantage of that.”

Virginia did just that. The Cavaliers outscored the Dogs, 41-20 in the second half and six of G-Webb’s points came after the final time out when Bennett inserted his bench.

After the win, Guy was elated for Hunter.

“Dre’ is easily the No. 2 player in the entire tournament in my mind,” Guy said. “We could have used him last year. He was here this time and he played tremendously. Having him on the court is a huge difference-maker. I am so happy he finally got to experience March Madness.”

How much more of the madness Hunter & Company experience may depend on how much he grows into Virginia’s go-to-guy role. He’s clearly the one player who can take over a game.

Let the big dog eat. He has a healthy appetite.


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