By Arnie Leshin
If you are a commuter, buy your tickets in advance, store them in a safe place, and make sure you leave with them. That way, you have your choice of train, bus, plane, car, or if you are in walking distance of US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, take a stroll.
The standard way for teams and fans is going straight from the opening round to the final night, and if you get that far, you made it to the championship game,
Texas Tech, now sporting a program record 30-6, went the standard way, and didn’t have a rehearsal because it had never gotten before from point one to point six. It arrived as a 5th seed from a state where football is king, just ahead of rodeos and baseball. Then it avoided any controversies by breezing past Northern Kentucky by 19 points, past Buffalo by 20, past Michigan by 17, and capping it off by stunning Gonzaga by 15 in Saturday night’s Final Four.
Its opponent in the semis opener was 2nd seeded Michigan State, and it fell short after winning its first four that included top-seeded Duke. Just as its fierce state rival, Michigan, the Spartans’ season ended against these same Red Raiders, and there was no doubt of the 61-51 result.
“We lost to a better team,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “They were more physical, shot the ball well, and stopped us every time we tried to go on a run. We have only two seniors, so we will again have a strong lineup, but tonight I give Tech and its head coach, Chris Beard, all the credit.”
And also kudos to transfer Matt Mooney, a senior who graduated from South Dakota. He is no doubt the leader of this team. He has the smarts, he has the bishots, he has the defense. The 6-foot-4 guard had the team high of 22 points and highlighted the Red Raiders stretch run by hitting all five of his shots. That was Tech’s only true blast of offense, and his third 3 brought a 48-35 Red Raider lead with 9:38 remaining.
“He’s obviously very, very talented,” said Beard of Mooney, “but the thing that impressed me tonight was just his courage, wanting to make those big plays in a big moment.”
Before and after Mooney extended the lead, it was all about defense, a game filled with air balls, blocked shots and clogged-up passing lanes. Over a two minute stretch late in the first half, eight shots were taken and six didn’t touch the rim.
It might have looked, to put it Texas Tech’s way, as perfectly ugly, but that’s the well-coached team that tied Kansas State for the Big 12 title. It was well prepared, for when the Spartans (32-7) trimmed a 12-point deficit to 3, their best shooter, Matt McQuaid, had a wide-open shot from the corner that would have tied it with 1:50 left, there was Mooney showing he also plays defense, and the shot rimmed out, and the Red Raiders pulled away.
The closer had a different ending. It went from 5thseeded Auburn looking like the winner, to overall top seed Virginia first being bailed out when an official failed to call a double-dribble foul on the Cavalier player who had to fetch the ball after losing it, and then picked up his dribble again. No good, but no whistle, and with six seconds left, the Bears would have gotten the ball with a 2-point lead.
But they didn’t, and with 0:6 remaining Virginia relied on its best shooter, Kyle Guy, who threw up a shot from the far corner that would have won it for the Cavs, but it rimmed off the front of the basket, and then the whistle blew. The clock read :07 and Auburn’s Jared Harper was called for a foul after the shot was in the air, and Guy went to the free throw line with a chance to make two and tie it, or make all three and win it.
Meanwhile, Bears’ head coach Bruce Pearl was still jumping around on the sidelines from the apparent missed double-dribble call. And then he was hearing the final buzzer as Guy’s charity tosses made it 63-62 and Virginia was heading for its first time in the final. This, after being the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16th seed last season.
The debate regarding the missed double-dribble personal and the reach-in foul on Harper did not change either call, and the Cavs (34-3) will meet up with Texas Tech, another school in the final for the first time, and which turned to its defense to stifle the Spartans.