Before Virginia could survive season-threatening efforts from Purdue, Auburn and Texas Tech in the final three rounds of the NCAA Tournament, it needed to beat No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb.
It needed De’Andre Hunter.
The guard answered the call, knocking down a 3-pointer in the second half of Virginia’s first-round game against the Runnin’ Bulldogs, who led by as many as 14 points in the contest, evoking memories of last March.
Hunter’s jumper put Virginia ahead by nine points, and he smiled and skipped back down the court, opening his arms, after the shot fell through the netting.
Steeled by becoming the first ever No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 last season — and brushing up against the same fate this season — the Cavaliers won the program’s first national championship by routinely staying calm in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
“The one thing I said to them before in the locker room, I said, ‘You guys faced pressure that no team in the history of the game has faced, well, really all year, but being down 14 against Gardner-Webb, and you did not panic in that moment, and you fought, and you found a way out,’” Coach Tony Bennett said after the national championship game.
They did it while playing with fans’ emotions. After turning a six-point halftime deficit in the first round into a 71-56 victory, Virginia outlasted Oklahoma and Oregon to advance to the Elite Eight.
Then the drama started.
Virginia stayed steady with Purdue all game March 30, despite a 42-point effort from Boilermakers guard Carsen Edwards. Trailing 70-67 with 16 seconds left, Virginia’s hopes pinned on guard Ty Jerome’s showing on the free-throw line. The junior hit the first but missed the second attempt, setting up a sequence bound to find a home in highlight videos for years to come.
Forward Mamadi Diakite tipped the ball past mid-court, sending freshman guard Kihei Clark on a mad dash ending with him scooping up the ball. Turning, Clark looked off Jerome and guard Kyle Guy, only to rocket the ball to Diakite. The redshirt junior’s shot beat the buzzer.
“I don’t know. It happened,” Diakite said afterwards. “I don’t know. I took it, and it went in. I was happy and ready for the next five minutes. I don’t know how to talk about it.”
There would be another five minutes of basketball before Diakite needed to talk about it. Virginia outlasted Purdue, of course, earning the 80-75 overtime victory and advancing to the program’s first Final Four since 1984.
The histrionics were far from over. Virginia led Auburn by 10 with 5:22 remaining in the national semifinal on April 6, but the Tigers had a four-point advantage with 17 seconds remaining. That’s when Guy drilled a 3-pointer in the corner.
After Auburn guard Jared Harper made one of two free throws, Guy took and missed another long ball from the opposite corner for the win at the buzzer. A late whistle from the official put Guy on the line, where he clinched 63-62 victory with three free throws. Tigers players sulked.
“I do feel for Auburn,” Bennett said. “I feel better for us.”
Bennett echoed that sentiment about 48 hours later, after Virginia tied the national championship game at 68 with 14 seconds left on a 3-pointer from Hunter. The redshirt sophomore then put UVa up for good with a long ball from virtually the same spot in overtime.
Soon Virginia was donning commemorative hats and t-shirts under falling confetti, basking in ultimate redemption made by possible by three heart-pounding comebacks.
“This is a dream come true,” Jerome said.