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De'Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome, bound for the NBA Draft, solidified Virginia as a preeminent national program

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Final Four Auburn Virginia Basketball

Virginia's Ty Jerome (11) and De'Andre Hunter (12) react during the second half in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament against Auburn, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter couldn’t help but mess with us one last time.

In the first few days after Virginia returned to Charlottesville last week, national championship trophy in tow, the Cavaliers guards fired off a series of Instagram comments designed to generate a reaction from the masses.

Mission accomplished.

“Are you leaving?” Jerome commented on one of Hunter’s posts. Hunter’s response raised some eyebrows: “I’m going back 2 back.” Then, Hunter commented on one of Jerome’s posts, writing, “Year 4?!” Jerome responded a minute later. “I’m doing whatever you do big bro.”

You could practically see the not-so-muffled laughter.

The tension surrounding Jerome’s future was actualized Saturday, when Virginia celebrated its national championship at Scott Stadium. At one point, Jerome, a junior, was asked how he’d like to be remembered at UVa. He hesitated. The fans offered a suggestion:

“One more year! One more year! One more year!”

Jerome chuckled from the stage, not directly acknowledging the Wahoos’ fans pleas. That is, until Monday morning.

“After talking to my family, coaching staff, and thinking about it a lot, I’ve decided to forgo my senior year of college and declare for the 2019 NBA Draft,” Jerome said in an Instagram video.

A few hours later, Hunter announced he, too, would enter the draft in an Instagram video of his own, confirming what many had long suspected.

Like that, the end of an era.

“De’Andre and Ty leave Virginia with tremendous legacies,” Coach Tony Bennett said in a statement.

That's not just coach speak.

The two will forever be linked in program history, and not just because they preserved the team’s national title hopes with 12 seconds remaining against Texas Tech, Jerome feeding Hunter for a game-tying 3-pointer in the corner.

Hunter and Jerome, along with running mate Kyle Guy, willed Virginia to redemption after the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in men’s NCAA Tournament history last season. In doing so, they put to bed criticisms of Bennett’s system and solidified Virginia’s place as a preeminent national program.

They’ll validate their coach even more in June, when they are likely to become the sixth and seventh UVa players selected in the NBA Draft under Bennett since 2012, joining Mike Scott (Atlanta, 2012), Joe Harris (Cleveland, 2014), Justin Anderson (Dallas, 2015), Malcolm Brogdon (Milwaukee, 2016) and Devon Hall (Oklahoma City, 2016). Both Hunter and Jerome plan to hire agents and remain in the NBA Draft pool.

Their future employers will be getting two products of an effective player development system. Yes, Hunter and Jerome both entered Virginia as 4-star recruits, per 247sports.com. But in the one-and-done era, neither presented as sure-fire superstars. The Cavaliers were the lone ACC program to offer Jerome, who was doubted for his lack of elite speed and athleticism. Hunter redshirted his first year on Grounds, deemed not physically capable yet of succeeding within the Pack Line.

Both players exceeded expectations, of course.

After a now-famous meeting with Bennett at Zazus Fresh and Healthy, when Bennett encouraged him to dedicate himself to defense, Hunter blossomed into the 2019 National Defensive Player of the Year. Jerome became the team’s metaphorical heartbeat, averaging 13.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game this past season.

As Jerome stood on the stage Saturday, listening to the fans clamor for his return, Hunter sat behind him to his right, snickering.

Hunter, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native, and Jerome, a New Rochelle, New York native, bonded the past three seasons at UVa, two Northeastern kids finding their way together in Central Virginia. They traded jokes in practice and on the bench, giggling from atop press conference podiums and the back of University of Virginia lecture halls.

“I was honestly hoping that Ty would pass the ball,” Hunter deadpanned Saturday, his hand in his pocket gesturing toward Jerome, when asked about his game-tying long ball. The crowd chuckled. “He was shooting a lot. He was shooting those floaters.”

Later on, Hunter’s grin faded as Jerome let the chants die out. One more year? Maybe not. But Jerome answered the question honestly. Hunter looked up at his friend, perhaps contemplating his own legacy. How did he want to be remembered?

“A good teammate, you know,” Jerome said. “A good person off the court and a national champion.”

Hunter clapped. No need for Jerome to pass this time.

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