One. More. Time.
Virginia showed resolve to bounce back from a 14-point first-half deficit in the opening round against Gardner-Webb, kept Oregon at arm’s length in the Sweet 16, withstood Purdue’s best in the Elite Eight and survived Auburn’s resilience in the national semifinal. Yet, there the Cavaliers were Monday night, facing overtime in the national championship game after a late rally by Texas Tech.
One. More. Time.
Again, U.Va. had what it took down the stretch and wouldn’t be denied in its quest to make a 180-degree turn in the NCAA tournament.
An 85-77 overtime win against Texas Tech ensured U.Va.’s ultimate comeback after becoming the first No. 1 seed in tournament history last season to lose to a No. 16 seed, when the Cavaliers fell to Maryland-Baltimore County in the first round.
Claiming the first men’s basketball national championship in school history was the sweetest redemption of all.
“You guys faced pressure that no team in the history of the game has faced, well, really all year,” U.Va. coach Tony Bennett said, addressing guards Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome on the interview dais after the game. “Being down 14 against Gardner-Webb, and you did not panic in the moment, and you fought, and you found a way out. That, I think, has prepared you for this moment to be able to handle the pressure or the intensity of a national championship game.”
Hunter, who scored 22 of his game-high 27 points after halftime and made a crucial 3-pointer in the final minute of regulation to tie the game, knocked down another 3-pointer with 2:09 left in overtime to put the Cavaliers ahead 75-73 — a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Making all 12 of its free throws in overtime, U.Va. (35-3) made sure Texas Tech wouldn’t have a chance to claw its way back into the game, like it had in regulation. Guy, who finished with 24 points, made four free throws in the last two minutes, 45 seconds of overtime.
Hunter missed seven of eight shots from the floor in the first half, but he flipped those results the rest of the game, connecting on seven of his last eight shots.
“I was aggressive in the first half, I believe, but my shots just weren’t falling,” said Hunter, who also had nine rebounds. “I just tried to do the same thing in the second half, and my shots were falling. Just staying aggressive, that’s it.”
Jerome scored eight of his 16 points in the second half to accompany his game-high eight assists. Texas Tech had five players score in double figures, led by Brandone Francis’ 17 points off the bench.
Trailing 59-51 with under five minutes left in the second half after Hunter followed a Guy miss with a stickback, Texas Tech looked to be on the verge of fading out with a whimper.
Similar to Saturday night’s national semifinal when U.Va. led Auburn 57-47 with 5:22 left before the Tigers went on a 14-0 run and U.Va. had to rally for a dramatic 63-62 win, the Cavaliers had trouble holding on to a late cushion against the Red Raiders.
Texas Tech’s 8-0 run tied the game 59-59. The teams went back and forth in the closing minutes of regulation, before the Red Raiders took a 68-65 lead with 22 seconds remaining on a pair of free throws by Norense Odiase.
That’s when Hunter came up huge, preserving U.Va.’s season via a 3-pointer off a feed from Jerome with 14 seconds left in front of the Cavaliers’ bench to tie the game 68-68 and send it to OT.
It was the eighth championship game to end in overtime, and the culmination of a postseason of pressure moments successfully navigated by the Cavaliers.
“We came in together and said that we were going to win a national championship,” said Guy, referring to himself and Jerome. “To be able to hug each other with confetti going everywhere and say we did it, it’s the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt in basketball.”
The closing minutes of regulation and overtime stood in sharp contrast to the game’s slow outset — not an entirely unexpected start for programs that entered the night with two of the top three scoring defenses in the nation.
Typically glacial in terms of tempo in the early going, both teams got off to a less-than-scintillating start on the offensive end, but Texas Tech couldn’t find any open shots against U.Va.’s pack-line defense.
U.Va. forced Texas Tech (31-7) to work the ball around in the half-court to try to get an open look in the first 10 minutes, as the shot clock routinely dipped under three seconds for the Red Raiders.
Despite Texas Tech opening the game by missing its first nine shots from the floor, U.Va.’s lead was just 9-3 with 12:40 left in the first half. Three minutes later, after a 3-pointer by Guy and a trio of free throws by Hunter, U.Va.’s advantage had ballooned to 17-7 – its largest of the half.
Though both Hunter and Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver were 3 of 4 shooting from the free throw line in the first half, neither of the coveted NBA prospects was able to find his shooting touch early on.
Both players are projected by many draft analysts to be possible top-10 selections in the June draft if they leave their respective schools early. In addition to Hunter’s first-half struggles, Culver missed all six of his shots in a half that saw them spend a lot of possessions guarding each other.
While Culver struggled to get rolling, and ended up 5 of 22 shooting from the floor (missed all six 3-pointers) on his way to 15 points, Texas Tech discovered a massive perimeter spark from other sources to get back in the game.
Scoring on five consecutive possessions, including four 3-pointers, Texas Tech knotted the game 21-21 with under 5½ minutes to go in the half. Francis had a pair of the 3-pointers for the Red Raiders.
The 3-point shooting barrage fueled a 12-2 run to put the Red Raiders up 25-21 with less than 4½ minutes remaining, but the four-point cushion would represent their largest lead of the half.
U.Va. would regain momentum before halftime. After tying the game 29-29 on a turnaround jumper by Hunter with 1:30 left, Jerome capped the half with 1.5 seconds left by hitting a 3-pointer from the top of the key, pushing the Cavaliers into a 32-29 lead.
Standing on the floor after the game in the bedlam of U.Va.’s most satisfying men’s basketball celebration on record, Jerome basked in a moment he’d waited all his life to experience.
“Forget last year,” Jerome said. “This is everything you dream of since you’re a little kid. I’m not even thinking about UMBC right now. I’m just thinking this is a dream come true, and it’s even more than that because you never even imagine you’ll be able to spend a year with people you actually love.”
Norm Wood, 757-247-4642, email@example.com