No. 3 Virginia stormed back from a double-digit deficit to beat No. 22 Louisville 64-52 on the road Saturday, bolstering an already impressive No. 1-seed résumé and staying atop the ACC standings.
The Cavaliers (24-2, 12-2) trailed 37-27 at halftime and were ice cold from three-point range, going 0 for 11 from beyond the arc in the first half. But UVA’s offense quickly came to life in the second half, fueled by De’Andre Hunter’s scoring barrage that flipped the game’s momentum in the Cavs’ favor.
Hunter, who was injured during UVA’s historic loss to No. 16-seed UMBC last March, took over in the second half and injected energy into an otherwise-lifeless Virginia squad. The sophomore forward finished with 26 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the floor, making up for guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome going a combined 4 for 20. The Cavs also got boosts from their bench, with Mamadi Diakite scoring 14 points and 7-footer Jay Huff adding 12.
More than anything, the way Hunter — an All-America candidate and projected top-10 NBA draft pick — put the team on his back Saturday illuminated what has been missing on previous Virginia teams.
Guy and Jerome are solid players who fit well into coach Tony Bennett’s patient, hot-potato offense, much like former All-Americans Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom have blossomed in the NBA. But even those standouts didn’t possess the takeover abilities that Hunter has.
As fundamentally sound as Virginia is, leading the nation in defense (allowing opponents just 54.6 points a game) and lack of turnovers committed, it will take a player who can do exactly what Hunter did Saturday to get to the Final Four.
Virginia has lost to a healthy Duke team twice, including one convincing loss on its home court. But the group followed that with an impressive road victory over North Carolina — an outcome that looks all the more impressive now given how well the Tar Heels played in hammering a Zion-less Duke squad on Wednesday.
Once again, Virginia is in the mix to win the ACC title (there’s a three-way tie with Duke and UNC right now). And once again, UVA is in contention to secure the tournament’s top overall No. 1 seed. (With Williamson out, the current top No. 1-seeded Blue Devils are vulnerable and could be graded by the selection committee on how healthy — or unhealthy — Williamson is on Selection Sunday.)
But back to the Cavs. Hunter is the alpha dog, and they are driven by last year’s loss.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited for this coming March, getting back to that stage,” Jerome told USA TODAY Sports in November. “We heard everyone ripping us last year (after UMBC loss). I’d love to shut everyone up.”