MINNEAPOLIS — For those who thought Texas Tech only plays defense, it’s time to meet Matt Mooney.
While the Red Raiders were locking down Michigan State on one end, the graduate transfer shooting guard was raining in 3s on the other, lifting Tech one win away from the title Saturday night with a 61-51 victory over the Spartans in the Final Four.
Mooney matched his season-high with 22 points, including three 3-pointers over the span of 3 minutes to give Texas Tech a 13-point lead midway through the second half.
Under these circumstances, it was too much to overcome, and now Texas Tech and its vagabond coach, Chris Beard, are playing in Monday’s final against Virginia.
“He told us we had enough to play in the final, and maybe coach is psychic,” Mooney said. “He must be psychic because here we are.”
Mooney’s first two shots in the stretch capped a 5-for-5 hot streak by Texas Tech (31-6) that stood as the game’s only true blast of offense.
The rest of the game was a defensive slog, filled with air balls, blocked shots and clogged-up passing lanes. It was, to put it Texas Tech’s way, perfectly ugly.
Michigan State (32-7) leaves coach Tom Izzo’s eighth Final Four with its seventh loss — the 2000 title is still the only time the Spartans have taken it all the way under their veteran coach.
But they did not go away easily.
After Mooney put them down by a baker’s dozen midway through the half, the Spartans trimmed it to 3. Matt McQuaid had a wide-open look from the corner — one of the very few on this night — to tie with 1:50 left, but the ball rimmed out and the Red Raiders pulled away.
Jarrett Culver (10 points, five boards) made one free throw on the next trip down, then Norense Odiase swiped the ball from MSU’s Xavier Tillman — one of Tech’s four steals on the night — and the Red Raiders worked the ball to Culver, who made his only 3 to push the lead to 58-51 and start the celebration.
The defense that led the nation in efficiency and held teams to under 37% shooting — second best in the county — held Michigan State to 31.9% from the floor.
Most tellingly, it stymied Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston. Yes, he led the Spartans with 16 points, but it came on 4-for-16 shooting, and he didn’t score his first second-half points until more than 10 minutes had elapsed — long after Mooney put this game out of reach.
Mooney is the fifth-year senior who made his way to Texas Tech after graduating from South Dakota — the school he transferred to after a rough year at Air Force.
Most all these Red Raiders have a story like that.
Beard is on his 12th stop in a travelogue of a career — and he’s been recruiting grinders like him to help him take this most-unexpected ride.
Culver wasn’t in the top 300 among high school recruits, and chose his hometown college over a few other places. He overcame a rough start in this one — 0 for 6 from the floor in a first half that ended with Texas Tech leading by the not-so-scintillating score of 23-21.
But through it all, he kept reaching and clawing and rejecting. Culver had one block and rim protector Tariq Owens, also a grad transfer, had three more before leaving late in the second half with a leg injury.
Owens came jogging back in toward the end to the cheers of the Texas Tech crowd, which included alum Patrick Mahomes, the high-flying QB for the Chiefs.
“Pretty cool to have the MVP of the NFL on our side, cheering for us,” Mooney said.
Turns out, the quarterback isn’t the only one from Tech who can light up that scoreboard.