MINNEAPOLIS — De’Andre Hunter was thoroughly comfortable in the moment, under intense pressure and with no margin for error. After all, it was only a national championship basketball game in front of 72,000 people and a television audience. Not like it was anything truly scary, like a trip down the rapids with a paddle in his hands.
White water rafting was a summertime team bonding experience for the Virginia Cavaliers, one that was meant to help overcome the moment of infamy in March and point them toward a better 2018-19 season. Coach Tony Bennett chose it for one very strategic reason: “Because it’s a blast.”
It turned out to be a learning experience for Hunter. “I learned that I’m still scared of water,” the redshirt sophomore guard said. “I’ll probably never go white water rafting again. I thought it was a great team bonding experience, something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. I was very happy when it was over. I was just happy I was alive.”
He and his team handled every stressful situation flawlessly in this year’s tournament, beating Purdue in overtime in the Elite Eight, recovering from a deficit with 0.6 seconds left to beat Auburn in the Final Four and overcoming a three-point deficit in the final 22 seconds of regulation to beat Texas Tech, 85-77, in overtime to win the national title Monday night.
Hunter was a huge part of the latter, having the nerve to attempt the corner three-pointer that sent the game to overtime, sinking another to put Virginia ahead to stay in the extra period and finishing with a game-high 27 points, 22 of them after halftime.
“He always says never get too high, never get too low,” Hunter said of Bennett on the U.S Bank Stadium court that was awash in confetti. “We have great confidence in ourselves and we’re going to keep playing through adversity, no matter what.”
It all left the impression that if Hunter had been available last March, Virginia might not have made the most dubious history: becoming the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 seed (UMBC) in The Big Dance. Then again, if he had been there to help the Cavaliers win a couple of rounds in 2018, the classic and entertaining championship game Monday night might never have happened.
As teammate Kyle Guy pointed out, Hunter might have jumped to the NBA. There was no talk of that Monday night, nor was there speculation about what his path is now. There was only celebration about where he had been. And it definitely was not up a creek without a paddle.
Bennett, when told the 27 points represented Hunter’s career high, said, “What a game to have it. He was terrific.”
Hunter was calm afterward, too, after having channeled the last of Virginia’s rough waters. “Joy is in the competition, like Coach said,” he said. “We worked for this all season and all that work just paid off.”