MINNEAPOLIS — A first-time college basketball national champion will emerge when Texas Tech and Virginia square off Monday in the NCAA Tournament national championship game.
For two teams unfamiliar with this stage, the idea of cutting down the nets at U.S. Bank Stadium is becoming more than a dreamscape.
“Why not us?” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “We’ve got good players. We’ve got a great university. We play in arguably the best league in the country. 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.”
Texas Tech (31-6) is attempting to become the first team since UConn in 1999 to run that table in its first Final Four appearance. The Red Raiders smothered Michigan State 61-51 in Saturday’s national semifinal.
Virginia (34-3) was in the 1984 Final Four but Saturday’s dramatic last-second escape against Auburn provided the long-awaited return trip. It’s also the culmination of a redemption tour that began last March 16, when the No. 1-seeded Cavaliers were on the wrong side of history: a 74-54 loss to No. 16 seed UMBC.
“It’s a great story. It is,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
“After the UMBC game, we sat in the holding area after that loss, and I said, we’re not going to put up Isaiah (Wilkins) or Devon (Hall), our two seniors. Ty (Jerome) and Kyle (Guy), we’re going to be up there, and that’s going to be one of the hardest things, facing that press conference, but it starts now. It’s going to mark something,” Bennett said. “I said, we’re going to get through this, but you guys need to be up there with me, and we need to go through this, and we need to go through next year together. We need each other. I knew it was going to be such an important time in our lives no matter how it played out. … And now to sit with them here brings great joy to my heart, it really does.”
Guy played hero for Virginia on Saturday, making a 3-pointer in the corner, and after Auburn’s Jared Harper missed one of two free throws, Jerome got the ball to Guy in the opposite corner for a game-winning try. A foul was called on Samir Doughty in the act of shooting, and Guy hit all three at the foul line to seal the game with 0.6 seconds on the clock.
“I’ve been pinching myself the whole time I’ve been in Minneapolis because it doesn’t really feel real,” Guy said Saturday. “But I’m just so happy right now, so proud of — (Jerome) played freakin’ phenomenal. 21, 9, and 6 (points, rebounds and assists) — he carried us through this game.”
Texas Tech advanced to the Elite Eight in 2018 and lost to eventual national champion Villanova. With four new starters, including graduate transfer Matt Mooney at point guard and 6-10 Tariq Owens, the Red Raiders are on the verge of claiming their own trophy.
That’s in great part a credit to Mooney, who tied a season high with 22 points and delivered big shots while Big 12 Player of the Year Jarrett Culver dealt with foul trouble. Mooney, from the far northwest Chicago suburb of Wauconda, is on his third college — he spent his freshman year at Air Force and then attended South Dakota.
“I can’t explain it, man. It’s been a heck of a journey,” Mooney said. “A lot of people have helped me get to this point, have helped me along the way. You know, this is — I’m living the dream right now. I’m so grateful I got another opportunity.”
If there’s a common denominator between the title contenders, defense is the calling card. Virginia and Texas Tech rank in the top three in defensive efficiency.
Duke beat Texas Tech 69-58 on Dec. 20. The Blue Devils also handed Virginia two of its three losses — 72-70 on Jan. 19 at Duke, and 81-71 in the rematch Feb. 9.
Blue Devils freshman Zion Williamson faced both teams this season and while he refused to pick a team to win the Final Four, he offered a first-hand breakdown of each team.
“The thing about Virginia was how they could control the pace of the game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them frustrated. So they control the game very well,” Williamson said.
And what about the Red Raiders?
“Texas Tech, their defense, I mean, they took like nine, 10 charges against us … their defense was probably the best I played against,” Williamson said.
–By Jeff Reynolds (@ReynoldsJD), Field Level Media