MINNEAPOLIS — With Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” blaring from the speakers, Texas Tech’s players walked quietly from the court to the locker room after its 61-51 win over Michigan State on Saturday night.
No jumping around, no celebrating.
“We came down to play 80 minutes, not 40,” sophomore Jarrett Culver said.
For Texas Tech, it’s 40 minutes from program — nay, athletic department — history. The Red Raiders have never won a national championship in men’s college basketball, and have won just one NCAA championship in a team sport in the history of the school: a women’s college basketball title in 1993, led by Sheryl Swoopes. Virginia is also looking for its first men’s basketball title, but the Cavaliers have had plenty of success in other sports.
This is a chance for Texas Tech to become the story in college basketball, an ultra-rare opportunity for the Red Raiders to be the talk of the sports world.
“It would mean everything,” said Culver, a Lubbock native. “I never would’ve thought Tech would get to this point, just growing up in Lubbock. But now that I’m here at Tech, just being a part of it is so special to me.”
To make history, Texas Tech will have to get more from Culver, who was uncharacteristically quiet for the first 38 minutes of the game — before hitting big shots late, including a dagger 3-pointer from the top of the key with 58 seconds left to give the Red Raiders a seven-point lead. They’ll need more from Davide Moretti, who was the hero against Gonzaga but had just five points on Saturday night.
Fortunately for Chris Beard and the Red Raiders, graduate transfer Matt Mooney was ready for the big stage. Mooney, who transferred from South Dakota last spring, finished with 22 points and four 3-pointers. Midway through the second half, Mooney hit three 3-pointers in a two-minute, 35-second span that extended Texas Tech’s lead from six to 12.
“I had a great shootaround today, and the basket just got big for me,” Mooney said. “I felt [God] was out there playing with us on the floor. The basket just got big, and my teammates found me.”
Down the stretch, Mooney also guarded Michigan State star Cassius Winston, arguably the best point guard in the country. And Winston ended up with one of his poorest performances of the season, shooting 4-for-16 from the field with just two assists to four turnovers.
All season, Winston had hit big shots late in the game to keep the Spartans alive; on Saturday, Mooney made sure he didn’t have that chance.
“He’s obviously very, very talented, but the thing that really impressed me tonight was just his courage, just to be able to make those big plays and want to be in those moments,” Beard said. “When Culver was — I’m not going to say struggling a little bit, I think when Michigan State was focused on Culver so much, Matt had the courage to step up and take those shots. He’s making plays on both ends. I loved his poise tonight. He’s a special player.”
“On the defensive end, he was going to play hard,” senior guard Brandone Francis added. “When he came down to Tech, I had no clue he could play defense that well. … We’re just glad he was able to have a great night.”
Virginia poses perhaps the toughest test of Texas Tech’s season thus far. The Cavaliers play defense as well as anyone in the country and they control the tempo and pace of the game. It’s going to be a defensive slugfest, one that features the lowest over/under (120) for a national championship game in the last 20 seasons (eight points lower than the previous low, 128 for the 2006 Florida-UCLA game).
The Cavaliers are favored, but that’s nothing new for the Red Raiders. They were picked seventh in the preseason Big 12 poll and have been underdogs in three straight games.
“Why not us? We’ve got good players. We’ve got a great university. We play in arguably the best league in the country,” Beard said. “We won the Big 12 regular season title. We’re a good team. We’ve got good players. Yeah, I think we deserve to be here, as do a lot of other teams. You’ve got to get fortunate, but we did. I’m looking forward to coaching these guys on Monday night.”
In just three seasons under Beard, the Texas Tech basketball program has already made history. The Red Raiders made their first Elite Eight last season, then followed it up with their first Final Four this season. But it’s not a common occurrence for Tech to be the headlining story. Among the big public schools in Texas, they’re significantly behind Texas and Texas A&M in operating revenues.
Athletic success — especially in basketball — is not an every-year event in Lubbock.
“It’s been a long journey for our program,” senior big man Norense Odiase said. “I’m happy that we’re here. … When we look back after this season and people look at our program and see what we’ve done in so little time, it’s special. It’s really special.”
But there’s still one more task. And if it happens, that postgame walk to the locker room will be a little louder.
“I feel like this team’s on a mission,” Culver said. “One more game until the national championship.”