MINNEAPOLIS - One of the first summertime meetings coach Chris Beard held with Texas Tech’s basketball team in July included a challenge to the team: Make a reservation to play in the NCAA Tournament final.
“He told us, ‘We have enough talent in here to play on the final Monday of the season,’” said Matt Mooney, a fifth-year senior who scored a game-high 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting to spark the Red Raiders to a 61-51 victory over Michigan State on Saturday in their first-ever Final Four appearance.
The win gets Texas Tech that reservation for Monday night in the national championship game against Virginia.
“Very seldom in my career have we got beat up,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “I mean, they played really good defense. ... That’s a tough, rugged team.”
Michigan State trailed for 30 minutes, 7 seconds in the 40-minute game and shot 31.9 percent from the field (15 of 47). Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston had a team-best 16 points but shot 4 of 16 and committed four turnovers.
“Their defense is really, really good,” said Winston, who was dogged by Mooney most of the game. “They got their hands on a lot of balls. We could have been a lot better. But their defense was really good.”
Mooney, in his first year at Texas Tech as a graduate transfer and his third college overall, filled the hero role. Teammate Jarrett Culver, the Big 12 Player of the Year, was quiet until a raindrop right-handed runner gave Texas Tech its first field goal in five minutes and a 54-51 edge with 2:28 left.
Culver finished with 10 points.
“The thing that impressed me tonight was his courage,” Beard said of Mooney, who tied his season high in scoring and doubled his season average of 11 points per game. “When Michigan State was focused on Culver so much, Matt had the courage to step up and make those shots.”
A bid by Michigan State senior Matt McQuaid to tie the game with a long 3-point attempt with 1:52 to go rattled in and out, and Culver made the first of two free throws 20 seconds later.
On Michigan State’s next possession, Texas Tech got the ball back with its fourth steal of the game, this one by senior Norense Odiase. Culver then hit an uncontested trey from the top of the key, putting the Red Raiders up 58-51.
Odiase made two free throws to seal it with 39.7 seconds left after the Spartans’ Kenny Goins clanked a 3-point try.
The Spartans stayed in the game at the free-throw line, making 14 of their 18 attempts.
“It wasn’t really a game that we were really out of. It wasn’t a game that I ever felt comfortable in it,” Izzo said, giving further credit to Texas Tech’s constricting defense.
Sophomore Xavier Tillman rattled in two free throws after Winston connected on four consecutive shots from the stripe, and Michigan State whittled a 12-point deficit to five (52-47) with 5:38 remaining.
The Spartans cut it to three with just over three minutes to play on freshman Aaron Henry’s two makes, then made it 52-51 when Henry’s slashing layup went in with 2:44 left.
Texas Tech roared out of the halftime locker room with buckets on four of five possessions and took an eight-point lead — 39-31 — on a three-point play by Kyler Edwards. The freshman drove hard from the left baseline and moved the ball from his right to left hand, putting it off the glass as he was fouled.
On the next possession, Mooney connected on a 3-ball from the wing, and after a Michigan State turnover, he drilled another to stake Texas Tech to a 45-33 advantage, prompting a red-faced Izzo to call timeout.
“Mooney hit two shots, one with a guy right in his face and one that was right over here,” Izzo said. “I didn’t see it, it was so far out. They earned it, they deserved it.”
Most of the damage was done while Culver watched from the bench with three fouls.
Suffocating defense won the first half on either end, and neither team could find its legs. Only 15 of 49 field-goal attempts went through, and Texas Tech led 23-21 at the break.
“We knew we weren’t going to out-tough Michigan State,” said Beard, though by most postgame accounts in either locker room, the Red Raiders did that very thing. “We had a little team meeting (Sunday). I told them, that’s not going to happen. We’re going to try to equal their toughness. We’re going to try to compete in this game.
“The thing I’m most proud of is for 40 minutes, we went shot for shot with one of the all-time greats in college basketball.”
Texas Tech’s reservation awaits.
—By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media