LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After dribbling the ball off his knee on a drive late in overtime, Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter was pretty much inconsolable.
That didn’t stop Kyle Guy from trying.
Virginia was trailing Purdue by one point Saturday when Hunter lost the ball. Guy, who’s been dealing with his fair share of scoring troubles this postseason, was the first Cavalier to reach Hunter, who had his head down and eyes closed.
He immediately swatted his teammate’s hand off his shoulder, but Guy persisted because he understands all too well the regret and feelings of emptiness that follow a missed opportunity.
“He said the team needs me. He said ‘You’re going to make a big play,’ and he was right,” Hunter said. “I didn’t want to hear it at the time. I was a little mad, but he was right and I really appreciate him for that. He doesn’t have to do that.”
Guy was right.
On Virginia’s very next possession, Hunter didn’t hesitate to lower his shoulder and bully his way back to the rim, where he kissed a layup off the glass to give the Cavaliers a 76-75 lead with 26 seconds to play.
Despite another mind-bending NCAA Tournament performance by Carsen Edwards (42 points, 10-of-19 from 3-point range) and Purdue building a double-digit lead in the first half, Virginia earned its first trip to the Final Four since 1984 with an 80-75 overtime victory.
The game itself stands with Duke-UCF, Duke-Virginia Tech and Purdue-Tennessee as the most electrifying finishes in the latest rendition of March Madness.
If it weren’t for Guy’s words keeping Hunter mentally in the moment, though, it may have been the Boilermakers cutting down the nets in the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday while the Cavaliers solemnly trudged back to their locker room, instead of the other way around.
“He didn’t want to hear me, which I don’t blame him, but at the same time, he responded the right way,” Guy said. “I didn’t want him to feel guilty for that. He was upset. I know he was, but he responded the right way and made what was really the game-winning bucket.”
That was a big moment for Hunter. Perhaps even big enough to cement his position as a top-10 NBA Draft pick.
For much of Virginia’s tournament run, Hunter seemed passive. He either passed on shots all together or went to the rim without the physicality that makes him such a consistent finisher. There were moments in each of the Cavaliers’ past three games, and in the first half on Saturday, when those aware of his potential had to be wondering when he was going to take over.
That moment just happened to be with the Cavaliers’ season on the line. Virginia head coach Tony Bennett summed it up with one word.
“When you look at what this group of guys has done on the road in the ACC, the last couple years or last number of years, that's hard,” Bennett said. “But maybe the test of a team as far as quality is over the course of the season, the conference play. This is a different kind of test and it’s what’s probably most honored and rewarded.”
Hunter wasn’t Virginia’s leading scorer on Saturday night. That honor went to Guy, who posted a double-double (25 points, 10 rebounds) and hit five second-half 3-pointers. He wasn’t the guy who kept the team afloat when Edwards started hitting shots from anywhere and everywhere on the court. That was Ty Jerome, who, time after time, responded with clutch 3s and finished with 24 points.
But Hunter was the only player on the court Saturday who is seen as a potential top-10 draft pick. That status comes with expectations. Not only did he live up to them on the grandest stage of his career, he proved no moment is too big. And he probably earned himself plenty of money.
Now, it’s on to an even grander stage where he’s sure to have a shot at a few more career-defining moments.
Ron Counts covers University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress. Contact him at email@example.com, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.