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Usually quiet, De'Andre Hunter made his voice heard in national championship game

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Hunter

Virginia guard De'Andre Hunter cuts down part of the net after winning the national championship against Texas Tech at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Friends’ Central School basketball coach Ryan Tozer will never forget his first face-to-face interaction with De’Andre Hunter or the uneasy feeling that settled in the pit of his stomach once it was over.

It was the summer before Hunter’s freshman year of high school. Tozer had just been hired at his alma mater that spring, and he knew Hunter was on the previous staff’s radar. He wanted to gauge his chances of landing the talented youngster.

So, there he was sitting in the Hunters’ home in the Lawncrest neighborhood of northern Philadelphia. Hunter was flanked by his mother, Priscilla, and brother, Aaron, as Tozer rattled off all the benefits Friends’ Central had to offer on and off the court.

Aaron — a paternal figure to Hunter since their father died when he was seven — was fully engaged in the conversation and Priscilla occasionally interjected with a question. De’Andre Hunter did not say a word.

“Basically, I spoke to his mother and his brother, and I really couldn’t get him to communicate,” Tozer said, “so I left there thinking ‘Man, he’s not interested’ and I couldn’t really get a read on him.”

It turned out Tozer’s intuition was incorrect. Hunter stepped in right away as a freshman and averaged 11 points a game, and the only thing that kept him from earning four varsity letters was a broken tibia that cost him his sophomore season.

As a senior at Friends’ Central, Hunter was named Pennsylvania Class 2 State Player of the Year. And after Virginia’s 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech, he is the third alum of the private Quaker school in Philadelphia’s Lower Merion Township to make it to the top of the college basketball mountain as a national champion.

Hakim Warrick graduated from Friends’ Central in 2001 and won a national title with Syracuse in 2003. Amile Jefferson graduated in 2012 and hoisted the trophy with Duke in 2015.

In 2016, Hunter left Friends’ Central a talented introvert who Tozer said was the loudest player on the team bus during trips to and from games but rarely reached an octave above a whisper in the locker room.

On Monday, Hunter scored a career-high 27 points and ascended the ladder to snip off a piece of the net dangling from one of the rims in U.S. Bank Stadium and keep it as a memento of Virginia’s first national title in program history.

“It was exhilarating to see him come up that big on that stage,” Tozer said. “We’re talking about somebody who has been so quiet his whole life, but everybody heard him Monday night. The whole country heard him.”

Tozer was in Minneapolis for Final Four weekend. He got to spend some time with Hunter on Saturday after the Cavaliers’ breathtaking win over Auburn, and he was in the stands to see him hit a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left to send the national title game into overtime and another in the extra frame to put Virginia ahead for good.

“The national championship game was the first time I’ve ever seen him show emotion on the court, which was nice to see,” Tozer said. “To see that fire from him was great.”

Tozer said the campus at Friends’ Central is still buzzing from the win. Students gathered in the dining hall Monday for a watch party. There was food, and crews from the local CBS and ABC affiliates stopped by. Teachers were even instructed not to give homework on game day, which was probably for the best seeing as how it was after midnight eastern time when Hunter climbed the ladder to cut his piece of the net.

As waves of fans packed The Corner in Charlottesville after the game, students at Friends’ Central were drifting off to sleep consumed by images of Hunter standing on the ladder, a piece of net in one hand extended toward to ceiling as a timid smile inched across his face.

“The joy is in the competition,” Hunter said during Monday’s postgame press conference, echoing a sentiment commonly shared by Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. “It’s a great win for our program, and a great win for our coach. We worked for this all season, and all that work just paid off.”

‘Painfully shy’

Tozer said Hunter was the best player on his team from the moment he stepped on the court as a ninth-grader, but he was “so painfully shy.”

“He has a great sense of humor, but he just wouldn’t talk,” Tozer said. “He wouldn’t communicate on defense, but not because he couldn’t. As a coach, you’re always trying to get guys to talk on defense. He just would not speak, period.”

By the time Hunter was a junior, Tozer said he was the best player on the court, no matter what gym he was in or who was lining up across from him. That included a couple of games against Pennsylvania rival Westtown School, which was led by Mo Bamba, who now plays for the Orlando Magic, and Cam Reddish, who just wrapped up his freshman year at Duke and is a likely top 10 NBA Draft pick.

“The thing I like most about De’Andre is his demeanor on the court doesn’t change,” Tozer said. “You can’t tell if he’s winning or losing or if he’s playing well or playing poorly, his affect doesn’t change. But he’s as competitive as they come.”

College scouts started taking notice during Hunter’s junior year, but his quiet nature complicated the recruiting process early on. Much like in his living room back in Lawncrest, his silence was seen as concerning.

“Coaches couldn’t get him to talk, and they thought he wasn’t interested,” Tozer said. “So I talked to De’Andre about needing to get out of his comfort zone and engage with these coaches. I told him ‘Your lack of a response comes across as a lack of interest, which I know isn’t the case.’”

Bennett said it took some work to draw Hunter out of his shell.

“You could kind of tell he was one of those guys you had to pull answers out of,” Bennett said, “but when you got him talking basketball, his face just lit up.”

Hunter is less shy these days, but he’s stoic as ever.

“He comes in after a game and you can’t tell if he had 30 [points] or 10,” Virginia assistant coach Brad Soderberg said. “He’s got the same demeanor all the time, and I think it’s something that will help him in the NBA because there are so many games and he’s not going to be a guy that will get up and down based on how a couple bad games go or how a couple good games go.”

Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford — himself a graduate of John Marshall High School in Richmond — likes to joke with Hunter that he’s not really a Philly kid.

“Philly guys are a little gritty and they’re blue collar. He’s just a quiet, unassuming kid,” Williford said in the locker room after Monday’s title game. “He doesn’t have that New York swag that Ty’s got, but he’s got a quiet confidence. I tell him all the time ‘you’re not from Philly,’ but that Philly came out in him tonight.”

‘Same old De’Andre’

Hunter started getting publicity as a potential NBA lottery pick late last season. But this season, aside from 19 points in the second half of a comeback win at Louisville, fans didn’t see him taking over games the way top 10 picks stereotypically do.

As underwhelming performances mounted in the ACC Tournament and resurfaced in NCAA Tournament games against Oklahoma and Oregon, many began to wonder if his passive nature was spilling onto the court.

The questions about his lack of aggression and production didn’t affect Hunter in the locker room, though.

“He was the same old De’Andre. He’s always a really funny guy and pretty level headed. He’s quiet, too, but when he steps on the court, he gets the job done,” teammate Jayden Nixon said. “I don’t care if he’s a lottery pick, teams need to take him as high as they can. He’s a phenomenal player.”

Nobody had a better view of Hunter’s cutch 3-pointers in the national championship game than former Albemarle High School standout Austin Katstra, who was watching from the Cavaliers’ bench.

“He’s the best player in the country, and he showed that,” Katstra said. “He was getting whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, and he did what we knew he could do all year on the biggest stage.”

Several former Cavaliers made their way out of the stands during Monday’s postgame celebration, and each one spent a few moments with Hunter.

“People have been downplaying him the whole tournament, and then he showed up to the biggest game of the season and was a monster,” said Malcolm Brogdon, who is preparing for an NBA playoff run with the Milwaukee Bucks. “He was the best player on the floor, and he did what he needed to do tonight.”

“He’s elite,” added Devon Hall, who just wrapped up a season with the Oklahoma City Blue in the NBA’s G League. “Big-time players make big-time plays, and that’s what he did.”

Hunter is sure to have plenty of meetings with NBA coaches and front office executives before the draft on June 20. Maybe his mother and brother will accompany him. Maybe they won’t. Maybe he’ll rattle off a litany of anecdotes and witty jokes. Maybe he won’t.

Given how he ended his sophomore season on the grandest stage college basketball has to offer, perhaps De’Andre Hunter has already spoken.

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Ron Counts covers University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress.​ Contact him at rcounts@dailyprogress.com, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.

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