SportsPulse: Texas Tech has stormed into the Final Four and some on the team would attribute that to the Lil Nas X’s popular song.
MINNEAPOLIS — That swarming Texas Tech defense has claimed yet another victim.
Jarrett Culver’s three-pointer with 58 seconds left was the dagger in a 61-51 victory against Michigan State as the Red Raiders built a 13-point second-half lead, then held off the Spartans.
But as it has throughout the NCAA tournament – and almost all season – their defense was the difference, holding the Spartans to only 15 field goals – their fewest in seven seasons – and their lowest point total of the season (by 11).
Texas Tech will face Virginia, a 63-62 winner against Auburn in the other semifinal. And given the Cavaliers’ defensive prowess, Monday’s championship game might be a defensive struggle unseen since the move from peach baskets to nets.
In Texas Tech’s first trip to the Final Four, the Red Raiders now have a chance to notch their first national championship. It would complete an improbable journey, both for the team and its coach.
Texas Tech was picked to finish seventh in the 10-team Big 12 after losing five of its top six scorers from a squad that reached the Elite Eight last season. But with a couple of key graduate transfers, the emergence of sophomore forward Culver as a likely lottery pick in the NBA draft, and that relentless defense, the Red Raiders have achieved unprecedented heights.
Four years ago, Texas Tech’s Chris Beard was coaching at Division II Angelo State, another stop in a tour of college basketball backwaters. Now in his third season at Tech, he’s the owner of the AP’s national coach of the year award.
It was Michigan State’s eighth appearance in the Final Four under coach Tom Izzo. But the Spartans are still searching for their second national title in Izzo’s tenure; the only time they cut down the nets was 2000.
Leading by three early in the second half, the Red Raiders gradually – and then suddenly, it seemed like – pulled away. Texas Tech first found success driving for tough layups. And then Matt Mooney, one of two graduate transfers, hit consecutive three-pointers – the second on a 24-footer – to stretch the lead to 45-33 with 11:14 left. Moments later, Mooney added a step-back three for a 13-point lead. He finished with 22 points.
Michigan State climbed back in. Xavier Tillman’s free throws with 5:38 left pulled the Spartans within five, 52-47.
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It was more than two minutes before anyone scored again. Spartans freshman Aaron Henry hit two free throws, then added a reverse layup on the next possession to pull Michigan State within 52-51, but Culver answered with a running jump shot in the lane. He hit a free throw and then, as the clock ticked under a minute, pulled up for the three-pointer.
Norense Odiase sealed victory with two free throws. Fittingly, the game ended with a miss by Michigan State and a defensive rebound by Texas Tech.
Texas Tech led 23-21 at halftime. The Red Raiders’ defense was as advertised, smothering the Spartans just as it had previous opponents. Michigan State’s defense was as good, too. But offensive ineptitude played a role, too.
Both teams endured scoring droughts.
Cassius Winston’s three-pointer with 1:03 left ended a scoring drought of 6:27. It pulled the Spartans within 23-21. And the score stayed there. In the first half, Michigan State was 7-23 in the first half; Texas Tech was 8-26. Winston led Michigan State with nine points; Matt Mooney had nine to lead Texas Tech.