Lawncrest’s Hunter comes up big for national champs

De’Andre Hunter cuts down the net after Virginia won the NCAA championship. Matt Riley/UVA Athletics

De’Andre Hunter wanted to play the best.

This year, he only did that in practice.

Coming out of high school, Hunter was recruited by college basketball programs like Maryland, Miami, North Carolina State and Notre Dame. He chose the University of Virginia for many reasons. He loved the coaching staff and campus, but another big attraction was the Cavaliers play in the Atlantic Coast Conference. That meant lots of big games against lots of great programs.

“I really liked that they were in the ACC,” said Hunter, a Friends Central graduate who lives in Lawncrest. “I wanted to play against the best. Duke, (North Carolina), the best teams are in the ACC, so I wanted to play there. I wanted to compete against the best, and Virginia was the perfect opportunity for me.”

This year, the Cavaliers didn’t prove to just be the best team in their conference, they proved to be the best team in the nation.

Virginia, a No. 1 seed, defeated Texas Tech 85-77 in overtime in the NCAA championship game to bring home the crown.

“It was like a dream come true,” said Hunter, a small forward who scored 27 points and pulled down nine rebounds in the game while defending Texas Tech’s best player, Jarrett Culver, and limiting him to 15 points. “I knew it was special when we were playing, but after the game, I had close to 300 texts. A lot from Philly. Some were friends, some were from family, some were from people I haven’t talked to since middle school. It was really cool, a lot of people were happy we won.”

Winning a championship is special, no matter what the situation, but for Virginia it had to be even extra special. And for Hunter, it really couldn’t have been better.

Last year during his redshirt freshman year, Hunter exploded on the national scene, becoming one of the top players in the nation. He was named the ACC Sixth Man of the Year and made the ACC All-Rookie team and his efforts helped the Cavaliers wrap up a No. 1 seed in the tournament.

But Hunter broke his wrist at the end of the season and was unable to play in the tournament. He was still heartbroken, though, when Virginia made history by becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when it fell to University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Remember how that game busted your bracket? That just cost you $5. It cost the Cavaliers everything.

“Last year, we had a great year, but one day can ruin that,” Hunter said. “I don’t want to say it was a good loss, it wasn’t. It just wasn’t our game, and one game can ruin a great year. We stuck together, and that helped us this year. It wasn’t a good loss, but I do think it helped us work to get to where we got this year.”

Hunter was selected as an All-Final Four tournament selection and he certainly shined bright when the Cavaliers needed him most, but Hunter was very good all season. He scored more than 15 points per game and pulled down more than five rebounds a game in helping Virginia finish 35-3.

And while those offensive numbers are good, Hunter takes the most pride in his play at the other end of the court.

“I take it personally when someone tries to score on me,” said Hunter, who graduated from Friends Central in 2016. “I like playing defense. I try to stop everyone I guard and keep them from scoring at all. If they do, I take it personally.”

That attitude must work.

Any NBA team would be happy to have an offensive player like Hunter, but what teams really like about him is his work at both ends of the court.

That’s why in most mock NBA drafts, Hunter is a lottery pick. That’s if he comes out this year.

“I love playing here and playing with my teammates,” said Hunter, who played for Philly Pride AAU team during his high school days. “Winning a championship is a dream, it was a dream come true, but playing in the NBA is another dream I have.”

Hunter will play in the NBA whenever he decides to come out, but he’s still a Philly guy. And now he’s a Philly guy with roots in Virginia. And he’ll never forget where he came from.

“I started out playing basketball at the Lawncrest Rec,” said Hunter, who was in the final graduating class at St. William Elementary School. “I’m still a regular guy, I love going home. I’m not sure when I’ll get back there, and I’m not sure if I’ll play this summer in Lawncrest, but I hope to go back there soon.”

Wherever he goes, he can be an inspiration to younger players.

Hunter was good when he was a kid, but he admits he didn’t truly blossom as a basketball player until he was a junior in high school.

He’s proof that work ethic can mean good things. Heck, even great things.

“The biggest thing is stay persistent,” said Hunter, who is majoring in American studies. “If you work for it, you can create your own path.”

His path took him directly to an NCAA championship.

Not a bad destination.

“It’s still a great feeling,” Hunter said. “My entire family was there, it was the most people I ever had come watch me play. I’m happy for us and my teammates, who worked so hard, and the great coaches. Winning a championship is the best feeling.”