The Higher They Climb, The Harder They Fall
There’s a reason I’m okay with my favorite teams not going far in or making the playoffs.
Sure, some of it is because I don’t want to feel obligated to fix my schedule around the games they play as well as trying to make sure I find a way to watch it if it’s not on regular broadcast.
But the biggest reason I’m okay if my team doesn’t get too far is because I get anxious and nervous if they’re going to win the championship when they’re so close, causing disappointment and discontentment if they come up short. And last night is why I feel that way after my alma mater, Texas Tech, lost a heartbreaking national championship game in overtime to Virginia, 85–77.
Leading up to this Final Four weekend, I was already feeling the butterflies in my stomach. It felt like it was the Dallas Cowboys were preparing for a playoff game or the Dallas Mavericks were in the NBA Finals.
From the time of tip-off on, I felt it against Michigan State, making it a little difficult for me to eat the meal laid in front of me at Buffalo Wild Wings. I felt it all day Sunday and Monday and when the basketball was thrown up in the air that night.
Excitement? Certainly. It’s not everyday your team makes it through March Madness to the national championship, especially for a school like Tech.
As far as how the game was played out, it was entertaining and more high-scoring unlike all those people who thought it would be boring. Both of these teams are excellent and can play great offense and defense, the latter of which started off the game.
Despite it not being a new thing, this Tech team had never faced the pack line defense and they struggled with it, not making a basket until 7:11 into the game. Virginia had never seen Tech’s defense before either, so it took them a little while to ease in as well.
The Cavs got off to a 17–7 lead midway through the first half. Their shots were falling in as they boast some excellent three-point shooters, making them seventh in percentage in the nation. Like I’ve said before, they may not be very athletic, but these guys can shoot and they have some serious length with their height while boasting the best scoring defense in the nation.
Tech look outmatched, but they battled back to briefly take the lead with some help from their bench, which outscored the Cavs, 29–9, thanks to senior Brandone Francis and Kyler Edwards.
As the baskets started going in, Virginia got the last one before the half to take a 32–29 lead. Both teams are good at adjusting and playing better in the second half, including their star players.
In the first half, Tech star and NBA prospect Jarrett Culver was 0-for-6 shooting just like the game before against Michigan State but made five baskets in the second half. Virginia’s NBA prospect De’Andre Hunter started the game 1-for-8 but turned that around, scoring a career-high 27 points.
Virginia got out to a 10-point lead again midway through the second half. Tariq Owens, who wasn’t 100 percent after Saturday’s injury, fouled out with 5:46 to play and his team down, 59–51, making me think Tech’s chances were getting smaller.
But the Red Raiders are a group of grinders, never giving up as they chipped away at that lead, turning this national championship game into a thriller. Still, the Cavaliers’ big three were having a great night. Alongside Hunter, Kyle Guy had 24 points and Ty Jerome had 16.
In case you were wondering, this game had close calls like every big game nowadays down the stretch of regulation as well as overtime. At the end of the second half, there were three that went Tech’s way.
The biggest one came with just over a minute left with Virginia leading, 65–64. Tech senior center Norense Odiase made a huge block on Hunter. The ball went off a few hands. The orginial call was Tech’s ball, but upon further review it looked like it might be off Odiase’s hand. However, there wasn’t enough video evidence to overturn it.
Tech got the ball. Francis, who led the team with 17 points, missed a three, but Culver wrestled the ball away from Guy, winning possession. Then, Culver, the Big 12 Player of the Year, went one-on-one with Hunter, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and spun around him for a layup to give Tech the lead with 35 seconds.
On the next possession, Jerome missed a floater. Odiase got the rebound with 22 seconds and was fouled before calmly and surprisingly making both free throws to make it 68–65. Jerome got the ball, drove to the basket for what looked like a easy layup that Tech didn’t mind giving up. However, Culver abandoned his man in the corner, Hunter, who was hot, so Jerome threw it to him as he splashed a game-tying three with 12 seconds.
Then without calling a timeout, Tech advanced it. Culver missed a three. Hunter got the rebound before losing it as Guy tried to call timeout, giving Tech a second chance with a second left. Braxton Key blocked Culver’s shot as it became the first national championship game in 11 years to go to overtime.
In OT, Hunter went to the line to make two free throws before Tech senior Matt Mooney made a couple of baskets to give Tech a 73–70 lead. Shortly after Guy made a pair of free throws himself, Hunter hit another big three-pointer to give Virginia the 75–73 lead.
After a few misses by both teams, Tech sophomore Davide Moretti, who scored 15 points, tracked down a loose ball that Hunter poked away, giving the Red Raiders the ball. However, upon futher review, it glazed off Moretti’s fingers. Virginia got the ball, winning that call. Jerome got fouled and made some free throws. Francis missed a three and the game got out of reach.
The hardest thing to think about when losing is how Tech let Hunter wide open for that three when Virginia needed a three to tie it. I know you want to contest a layup as that could certainly make a difference with a one-point game, but Culver, the best player on the team, has to be smarter.
At the same time, this Virginia team looked a little better and more comfortable. They did their homework and beat Tech’s defense, who still forced 11 turnovers and made key blocks, but from the start, it looked easier for them to get open for threes, etc.
The Red Raiders had not faced a team with that good of three-point shooting, but I figured they would defend better as the Cavs made 11 of them, shooting 46 percent. At the same time, while Tech had struggling offensive lapses, they still made 10 threes, shooting 31 percent, and those weren’t as open. They just looked like they never gained control during any of the 40 plus minutes of play unlike their previous tournament games. Tech had to create shots and work harder than usual on defense, especially after Owens fouled out, forcing them play small ball.
While Culver has had a great season, he didn’t play well in the Final Four, going 5-of-22 against Virginia, combining for 8-of-33 in both games. He made a heroic basket in the final minute to give his team the lead but didn’t stick to his defensive assignment, despite being known for excellence on that end of the floor, and couldn’t cash in on two final looks.
When Owens is in the game, it makes me feel like this team is going to win. If he was closer to 100 percent and he didn’t foul so much as he usually does, I think he could have changed the outcome of this game with more blocks, being a force in the paint and perimeter, and getting crucial rebounds, but Tech didn’t have that the final 5:46 of regulation and the five minutes of overtime as they were quite over-sized. I’m just hoping the reason he had to foul more in this game wasn’t because of him making up for his lack of flexibility with his foot.
There was a reason Virginia was a №1 seed and had only lost three games during the season. You got to give them credit for exercising last year’s demons in that first round loss by going all the way this year when many still doubted. Sometimes, that’s just the destiny of the team.
Yes, they barely got by in their last three wins as they were either won at the buzzer or in overtime. And yes, they got a little lucky on that no-call on a double dribble against Auburn, which would have given the Tigers a better chance of winning but not totally if they didn’t make both free throws. The foul on that three-pointer was clearly the correct call on Samir Daughty, who should have known not to land in Guy’s space as he sinked the biggest three free throws of his life.
Could it be luck when their opponents each had a better chance of winning in those final seconds? Sure, but you have to play to the final buzzer and give yourself a chance to win.
As far as Tech’s future, Beard should be staying. Tech Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt said he’s going to get him an even more pricey contract after the one he got last offseason when he was given a six-year extension for $19 million, making him one of the top-30 highest-paid coaches.
But those blueblood programs are probably going to be offering him more money eventually. With that, he may not be here five years from now, which is why it stings that this team couldn’t win the championship when they were seconds away.
Even though Mooney, Owens, Odiase, Francis and likely Culver to the draft will all be gone next year, Tech should have a good group of players replacing these.
Top-50 recruit Khavon Moore and four-star shooting guard Kevin McCullar took redshirts for this season. Joining them next year will be Jahmius Ramsey, the №6 shooting guard in the country, and ESPN 100 small forward Terrence Shannon Jr. Also coming will be top-10 junior college transfer Khalid Thomas. And Tech could get some graduate transfers.
I know a bit about heartbreak when having my team being close to winning a championship.
In the 2006 NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks blew a 2–0 series lead with a 13-point lead with six minutes left in Game 3 to the Miami Heat, who stole that Larry O’Brien Trophy in six games in Dallas. Fortunately, they made up for it five years later in 2011 beating the same team in six games on the road.
Later that fall after making the World Series for a second year in a row, the Texas Rangers had a chance to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in six games on the road just like the Mavs and bring home the Commissioner’s Trophy. They were a strike away, but Nelson Cruz couldn’t catch a fly ball as they ended up losing and blowing that series.
If I was the Mavs fan I am now back in ’06 or with the Rangers in ’11, that would have hurt so much more, especially for the latter since they’ve started all over and aren’t any good.
This one hurts too since I want to be able to brag as an alum even though they earned some respect, but I’ve been much more into the football team than the basketball one for many years. Plus, I, along with other people, never had any expectation of this program ever going that far until they got good last year. They could come back next year as Butler did in ’11 and North Carolina in ’17, but only the latter one as a blueblood program.
As hard as it is to swallow, I’m proud of this Red Raider team. They played their hearts out and gave everything. Sometimes, it’s just not enough. If you would have told me in 2012 when they won one conference game that the men’s basketball team at Texas Tech would go to the national championship seven years later, as a friend of mine said, I would have sent you to the white coats.
And while I usually would say that I would have rather lost a few games or series before a championship round, I’m glad Tech came this close. It was so fun and so rewarding to see them get the respect they deserve. Wreck ’em Tech!