By Arnie Leshin
There are many ways to reach the championship game of the men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.
If you are a commuter, get your tickets in advance, store them in a safe place, and don’t leave home for the game without them. To get to the US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, you can fly, ride the bus, take a train, or get behind the steering wheel of your car, and if you live close by, you can always 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, presto, you made it to the championship game.
From Lubbock, Texas Tech, now sporting a program-record 30-6, went the standard way and didn’t have a rehearsal because it had never before gotten from point one to point six.
It arrived as a 3rd 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, which 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 Texas Tech 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 big shots, 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 same 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, but there was Mooney forcing the shot
and it 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 0:9 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 Samir Doughty 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 Doughty did not change either call or the final score, 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.
Maybe Auburn, which finished a splendid season at 30-10 and won the SEC tournament final over Tennessee, deserved better. It never quit and erased a 10-0 deficit in the final five minutes and led 61-60 before Guy made an off-balance 3 with the clock showing 7.6 seconds. It stopped a Cavaliers drought of more than five minutes, but then the Bears’ Jared Harper was quickly fouled and converted one of two.
Then, after Auburn had two fouls to give, the first one looked like as if Virginia’s Ty Jerome might have double-dribbled into a decisive turnover, but there was no whistle, only the protest by Pearl.
Then came the mistaken PA announcement that the War Eagles had won, but Guy, who had pulled his jersey over his face, knew better, saying he heard the official make the call right away. These were his only free throws of the game and he turned in 15 points, six less than the 21 scored by Jerome. Doughty had the Bears’ high of 13 points.
For Auburn, It was a most painful way to have its season end.
When the final whistle blew, Pearl lost it on the sideline, pumping his fist and screaming. Not long after, he remained upset but said he didn’t want the final call to define a great game, and referred to the officials apparently allowing physical play throughout.
As for the winning coach, Tony Bennett, at least he doesn’t have to sing that he left his heart in Minneapolis. Not now, but maybe Monday night.
And that’s how Virginia and Texas Tech reached the championship game for the first time.