There are 37.9 seconds left, and then-No. 1 Virginia is trailing Louisville by two points on the road. Then-freshman forward De’Andre Hunter drives down the baseline, passing the first defender with a quick sidestep as another approaches to cut off his drive. They make contact as Hunter attempts to convert the basket, and the whistle blows. For a second, the KFC Yum! Center is silent as Louisville fans hold their breath. Then comes the call. Offensive foul, Louisville ball. The crowd erupts in cheers, and the Cardinals appear to be poised for a huge upset victory.
As Louisville is up four points, 66-62, with just six seconds remaining, the upset seems inevitable.
Then, the improbable happens. Then-sophomore guard Ty Jerome sinks two free throws with a second left to cut Louisville’s lead to two. All the Cardinals have to do is inbound the ball to win. But they aren’t able to do that. Then-senior forward Deng Adel travels on the baseline, giving Virginia one last chance for a prayer.
With 0.9 seconds left, the pass comes in from Jerome. There’s just enough time to heave a desperation shot. Hunter, who has been quiet all day, catches the pass and shoots it immediately. The buzzer sounds the moment the ball leaves his hands. The shot appears to be heading for a miss.
Then, bank. Swish. Ball game.
Virginia 67, Louisville 66.
Virginia’s bench swarms Hunter as the Louisville faithful stare in disbelief. Virginia Coach Tony Bennett breaks character and grins with pride for Hunter, who sat out with a redshirt just a year earlier. The legend of De’Andre Hunter was born in this moment — and it was just getting started. Hunter now averages 15.1 points per game and was recently named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
Two years ago, Hunter came in with an anticipated Bennett recruiting class which also featured All-American guard Kyle Guy and highly-touted Iona Prep prospect Jerome. While Guy and Jerome saw significant playing time as freshmen, Hunter was redshirted — a decision that was difficult for him to come to terms with at first.
Coming in as a 6-foot-7 forward with long arms and more athleticism than the typical Bennett recruit, he was pegged as a player whose frame and potential could vault Virginia over ACC rivals into multiple tournament runs. The decision to sit him for the year was therefore not easy, but Hunter accepted it, understanding it was best for the team.
“[He] was not too happy initially,” associate head coach Jason Williford said. “When he thought it through [he] wanted to do what was best for him and the program.”
Although the decision was difficult, it ultimately proved to be crucial for Hunter’s development as a player.
“The benefit of that year was getting his body right,” Williford said. “He attacked the weight room and his diet, worked on [his] skill set, shooting … everything really.”
There’s no doubt Hunter would have been a starter at many of the myriad schools that recruited him from the Friends’ Central School in Philadelphia, Pa. Despite this, he bought into Bennett’s system, trusting the process rather than transferring. This decision proved to be very rewarding in the end.
“Redshirting was hard,” Hunter said. “I learned a lot on and off the court, took in as much from older guys as I could [and] became mentally and physically stronger.”
Of course, the presence of more experienced, gritty players like Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall rubbed off on Hunter during his redshirt year and made him the great, selfless and versatile player he is today.
“From both Zay and Devon last year, he picked up [their] work ethic and being focused on the now and present,” Williford said. “Specifically from Zay, he learned how to approach the day-to-day grind.”
And it shows. During his first year of playing time, Hunter showed flashes of his offensive and defensive versatility. His improved jump shot and combination of length and athleticism made him difficult to stop on offense. On the defensive end, he was often tasked with locking down the opponent’s best player. Even though he didn’t start, Hunter showed just how good he was, winning ACC Sixth Man of the Year honors in his first year playing in a Virginia uniform.
The Cavaliers certainly missed Hunter’s ability to provide one-on-one offense in their loss in the NCAA Tournament last year while he was sidelined by a wrist injury.
In Hunter’s sophomore year, he packed more muscle onto his frame and succeeded Wilkins as the wing anchor of the pack line defense, while also stepping up for the Cavaliers on offense. In a starting role, he’s improved his stats significantly and has exhibited impressive efficiency. He is shooting a career-high 53.3 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from three-point range.
Despite his incredible basketball talent, Hunter is not the loudest guy, on or off the court. Unlike fellow stars Guy and Jerome, both of whom unapologetically wear their competitive spirits on their sleeves, Hunter lets his game speak for itself. He doesn’t have Jerome’s Kobe Bryant-like staredown or Guy’s three-point shooting swagger, but he does have game and is tearing up college basketball this year.
Like Virginia legend Malcolm Brogdon, Hunter doesn’t exhibit too much emotion on the court. He rarely shows anger, frustration or even excitement — he’s the ultimate cool customer. While this personality might not typically translate to a leadership role, Hunter — like Brogdon — has found his place as a leader on this team. He has stepped up as a leader this year, and he has met the challenge, despite obstacles.
“It’s challenging because [I’m] not talkative — I lead by example,” Hunter said. “Some of the other guys talk more.”
During his recruitment, Williford remembers noticing this part of Hunter’s personality.
“He did not talk a lot on the phone during recruiting,” Williford said. “We had trouble getting him on the phone! But he’s a lead by example guy … one of the hardest working guys we have.”
Along with Hunter, Jerome and Guy are poised for success in March. They’re routinely mentioned as the “big three” for Virginia. Their offensive talent has made the Cavaliers one of the best offensive teams under Bennett. This year, Guy and Hunter were named to the All-ACC first team, and Jerome was named to the All-ACC second team.
Hunter is good friends with both Jerome and Guy and loves the idea of a “big three.”
“‘Big three’ is really cool,” Hunter said. “Kyle, Ty and I talked about being the best players on the team in the future when we first got here as first-years.”
Hunter has received a lot of national attention this year for his play. Besides being on the All-ACC first team and being the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Hunter was named on a shortlist for the Julius Erving Award, given to the best small forward in college basketball. He is also being pegged as a lottery pick in many NBA mock drafts.
But he keeps all the noise in perspective.
“I try not to think about [the attention] as much and try to stay away from basketball when I’m off the court,” Hunter said. “I actually joke around a lot, which people don’t expect from my presence on the court.”
Williford agreed, crediting his ability to deal with the attention to the day-to-day grind mentality he learned from Wilkins.
“He’s oblivious to a lot of that, and family helps,” Williford said. “He’s focused on the present [and] not overly consumed with glamor and hype.”
As March rolls around, the spotlight will be on Hunter, the “big three” and the rest of the Cavaliers.
Regardless of what happens, Hunter will lead by example, play the game he loves at a high level and put Virginia in position to win it all.