For the first time in the team’s 113-year history, Virginia men’s basketball is the NCAA National Champion.
After going 29-3 in regular season and ACC tournament play, the Cavaliers went on a magical run in the NCAA Tournament. They reached the Final Four after a game-tying buzzer beater by junior forward Mamadi Diakite, the national championship game after three game-winning free throws by junior guard Kyle Guy and brought the championship home thanks to a game-tying three-pointer by sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter and more clutch free-throw shooting in the overtime period.
After the best season in Virginia men’s basketball history, here are some of the moments and players that truly made this season special.
Most Valuable Player: De’Andre Hunter, sophomore guard
With the outstanding two-way play by Hunter, the innate abilities of junior guard Ty Jerome to either finish on the glass or thread the needle with a bullet pass and the leadership and lights-out shooting of Guy, all three are deserving of the team MVP. Nevertheless, I went with Hunter — soft-spoken but a killer on the court.
After a season-ending wrist injury during the 2018 ACC tournament, Hunter decided to return to Virginia for his sophomore season despite the draft buzz around him — a decision that has contributed significantly to his development as a player and to the accolades he has won.
Hunter was invaluable in Virginia’s national championship season, providing versatility on offense — shooting 43.8 percent from the three-point line while also providing an adept ability to get inside. It was on defense, however, where Hunter proved to be most valuable. He used his 7-foot-2 wingspan to lock down quick guards, long wings and big men, leading to ACC and NABC Defensive Player of the Year awards.
His defensive prowess was on full display in the national championship game. Hunter held fellow projected lottery pick and Big 12 Player of the Year sophomore guard Jarrett Culver to just 5-22 shooting from the field. Furthermore, Hunter had a career-high 27 points and 9 rebounds in the game, just one of the many performances that helped propel the Cavaliers to their first national title.
Honorable Mention: Ty Jerome
Most Improved Player: Mamadi Diakite, junior forward
This season, Diakite, the always-smiling 6-foot-9 forward out of Guinea, Africa, burst onto the national scene after his game-tying basket against Purdue in the Elite Eight. His emergence is even more remarkable given where he was just a year ago. Diakite saw little progression in his minutes from his first year to second year and remained largely a role player in his sophomore season, often coming in for veteran forward and fan-favorite Isaiah Wilkins.
This year, however, Diakite grew by leaps and bounds.
He found himself in the Cavaliers’ starting rotation early in the year, helping senior center Jack Salt fill the defensive gap caused by Wilkins’ departure. Despite bouncing in and out of the starting lineup for much of the rest of the season, his play down the stretch earned him a starting spot in the last five games of the NCAA Tournament, in which his play was outstanding. He had 17 points and 9 rebounds off the bench in Virginia’s win over Gardner-Webb, had a game-high 14 points in the Cavaliers’ win against Oklahoma and of course, came up with the miraculous buzzer-beater against Purdue.
In addition to expanding his offensive repertoire — Diakite has become more comfortable with his mid-range shot, as well as expanding his inside game — he has become a presence defensively. His shot-blocking ability has made him an eraser for Virginia in the same way Wilkins was. He averaged a career-high 1.7 blocks per game and had a whopping 16 blocks in the NCAA Tournament.
Diakite averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game this season, improving substantially from averaging 5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per game last year. Given this remarkable improvement and the tremendous upside Diakite has given his incredible athleticism, Virginia fans have even more to be excited about for next season.
Honorable Mention: Hunter
Biggest surprise: Kihei Clark, freshman guard
Throughout the season when Virginia found themselves in tough situations, Clark often took the brunt of the criticism because of his size and perceived lack of offensive production. Yet this season, although Clark may not have had the most outstanding numbers, he surprised pundits and casual fans alike with his exceptional court vision and relentless defense against top defenses like Texas Tech and Wisconsin and dynamic offenses in Duke and North Carolina.
Clark was lightly recruited coming out of Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills, Calif. Prior to his senior year, he had committed to UC Davis. But after an outstanding performance in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, he decommitted and decided to go to Virginia. That said, he still came into Virginia as a largely unheralded prospect. However, it’s safe to say that after 33 solid minutes in the national championship game and 20 total starts in his first year, Clark has emerged as a dynamic two-way player for the Cavaliers.
There is perhaps no play that better shows Clark’s abilities and maturity than his one-handed, crosscourt pass to save Virginia’s season against Purdue that will go down in college basketball history.
Honorable Mention: Junior transfer guard Braxton Key
Best moment: Coach Tony Bennett celebrating after the championship
When Diakite converted what is now cemented in Virginia sports lore as “The Play,” it seemed like it was as dramatic an ending as a game could possibly have. That said, the tournament wins Virginia had were certainly not lacking in late-game drama and had their fair share of great moments — the Guy free throws and Hunter three-pointer are notable among these. Despite these individual clutch moments, however, what truly culminates these experiences is Bennett slapping a Virginia sticker on the line marked “National Champion” on the NCAA Tournament bracket, a moment 113 years in the making.
The joy that Bennett felt is one that many Virginia fans haven’t seen from a man known for his calm composure in whatever he does. After the devastating loss to UMBC and last year’s ACC Tournament victory over North Carolina, Bennett has always stayed composed and classy, never failing to acknowledge the opposing team, as well his own players, coaches and staff.
This time around, though, the pure elation on Bennett’s face after Virginia defeated Texas Tech could not be concealed. His excitement spoke for senior center Jack Salt, for Guy, who publicly detailed the anguish he experienced after the UMBC loss, and for all Virginia players and staff, past and present and for each and every fan that stuck with the Cavaliers during their climb from the lowest of valleys to the highest of mountains.
Honorable Mention: “The Play”
This past year has undoubtedly been the best in Virginia basketball history. After years of disappointing early-round exits, untimely injuries and relentless critics, Virginia fans will enjoy and cherish this season for years to come.