MINNEAPOLIS — Now that is the way to close out a season.
And quiet those critics, too.
Led by De’Andre Hunter, the Virginia Cavaliers turned themselves into national champions Monday night, holding off tenacious Texas Tech and former University of Arkansas at Little Rock head coach Chris Beard for an 85-77 overtime victory — a triumph that came 388 days after a crushing setback.
A season after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 — the one thing that had never happened in a tournament where anything can — the Cavaliers watched a 10-point lead turn into a three-point deficit before Hunter came to the rescue. The sophomore made the game-tying three-pointer with 12 seconds left in regulation, then made another with just over two minutes left in the extra period to give the Cavs (35-3) the lead for good.Gallery: Texas Tech-Virginia in NCAA Tournament championship game
“Surreal,” Hunter called it. “It’s a goal we started out with at the beginning of the season. We knew we were going to bounce back from last year. We achieved our dreams.”
After going scoreless for the first 18½ minutes, Hunter finished with a career-high 27 points. He helped the Cavs bring home the first NCAA title for a program with a colorful, star-crossed and, now, winning history.
Ralph Sampson was in the house, but now it’s possible that Sampson and the name “Chaminade” won’t be at the top of Virginia’s resume anymore.
Or “University of Maryland-Baltimore County.” That was the No. 16 seed that stunned the Cavs in the first round last year. Hunter missed that game with a broken wrist.
Each of Virginia’s 34 victories leading to the final, and each of its three losses, were all punctuated by the reminder that only the end result would serve as the ultimate report card on whether the Cavs could shed the baggage of last year.
What a ride this was.
A No. 1 seed once again, the Cavaliers fell behind by 14 early to 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb in this year’s opening round, and a nightmare seemed to be unfolding. But this time, they overcame it.
Then, they beat Purdue in the Elite Eight when the game looked lost, and did the same against Auburn on Saturday — getting bailed out by a foul call and Kyle Guy’s three free throws with 0.6 seconds left.
“I told them, I just want a chance at a title fight one day,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “That’s all I want.”
Hunter’s key three-pointer in overtime gave Virginia a 75-73 lead, and after the teams traded possessions, Texas Tech guard Davide Moretti scrambled after a loose ball heading toward Virginia’s rim. It appeared it would be Texas Tech’s ball, but a replay showed Moretti’s pinkie finger had barely scraped the ball. Virginia got possession and worked the ball into Ty Jerome, who got fouled and made two free throws with 41 seconds left for a 77-73 edge.
Brandone Francis missed a three-pointer on the other end, and Virginia pulled away — the first time this game felt remotely comfortable, even after Guy made a three-pointer to give the Cavs a 10-point lead with 10:22 left in regulation.
The Cavs went 12 for 12 from the line in overtime to ice the championship.
The Red Raiders (31-7) fell behind by 10 twice — seemingly too much in a matchup between two defensive juggernauts that allowed way more than the projected total of 118 points — but just kept coming back.
Jarrett Culver made a spinning, left-handed layup over Hunter with 35 seconds left in regulation to put the Red Raiders ahead 66-65. After Jerome missed a teardrop on the other end, Norense Odiase got fouled and made two free throws to make it 68-65.
The nation’s best defense couldn’t afford to give up a three-pointer, but Jerome skipped a pass to Hunter, who was open on the wing — and spotted up and drained it. Culver missed a three-pointer with Guy in his face with a second left, and we were headed to overtime, the first extra session in the final since Kansas beat Memphis in 2008.
“In terms of my guys, I’ve never been more proud,” Beard said. “This is real life. We’ll bounce back.”