- Ky McKeon
As my colleagues awaited the Auburn presser, I headed back to my post to cover this game, passing a somber Bruce Pearl, Jared Harper, and Bryce Brown on the way.
The ending of the last game left a weird taste in my mouth, but when the lights went down and the opening ceremonies began, my feeling of excitement returned. This game should be epic.
Tech and Sparty are probably the two most representative fanbases here in Minny. The Raider faithful traveled extremely well and it was impressive how loud they made US Bank Stadium – like near home game atmosphere. Of course, with these two squads it’s much easier to pick out the respective fans (green and red versus orange/blue, orange/blue), but the advantage was clear in the stands from the get go.
One of the key things I was looking for in this one was which team could crack the other’s lock-down defensive shell. In the Final Four preview, I raved about how good Michigan State was at taking what the defense gives them and adapting their style of play. Sparty decidedly did not accomplish this feat tonight. Tom Izzo admitted during post game that his primary goal was to try and punch it inside, something he’s done all season, but Texas Tech was unrelenting in the post. To make matters worse, Nick Ward picked up his second foul mid-way through the first half, leaving Sparty without its main post threat. Cassius Winston and Matt McQuaid tried to keep the ship afloat, but ultimately couldn’t carry the load.
The First Half
The first half was an absolute rock fight. Tech and Sparty combined to shoot 15/49 (30.5%) and managed a measly 44 points in 20 minutes. Tariq Owens started Tech off on the right foot by cashing a three on the first possession of the game, just his 8th triple of the season. Sparty’s ball movement looked crisp enough early on, the rock becoming a pinball catapulting off the MSU flippers, but Tech’s help defense countered every swing and motion of the attack. On the other end, Tech appeared to be settling for isolation possessions, as guys like Jarrett Culver were baited into taking tough shots. Culver struggled all game long to find his stroke, starting 1/9 from the field and scoring just one point in the first half. Chris Beard blamed himself for Culver’s ineffectiveness, saying he should have coached his offense better. Beard regretted that Culver wasn’t getting the ball back for a second touch after his initial give-up, and this trend forced the sophomore stud into trying to attack off the first touch, something Beard thought much too difficult against the Sparty defense.
MSU won the first eight minutes behind the play of Matt McQuaid, a senior wing who’s known for his all-out style of play. McQuaid had nine of Sparty’s 14 points heading into the under-12:00 timeout and Michigan State enjoyed a three-point lead. Izzo clearly instilled a specific gameplan on his players to counter the talented Culver. Every time he touched the ball, the Spartans collapsed on him and forced him out of a rhythm. Despite a clutch Matt Mooney three to cut a five-point deficit to three, Tech appeared to be in trouble with Norense Odiase picking up his second foul halfway through the first half. But then things changed. Ward went out with his second foul and the Tech role players began their ascent to stardom. Brandone Francis nailed a three to put the Raiders up one heading into the under-8:00 and finished the game with nine crucial points off the pine to go along with Kyler Edwards’ six.
The rest of the first half was marked by offensive futility. Sparty finally broke through on the offensive glass, but it resulted in just three points in the final eight minutes. Two different Spartans missed the front-end of a one-and-one and MSU stumbled into the 2:30 stoppage of play after missing their last 15 attempts. TTU, too, was busy building houses of their own, scoring just four points in the final 8:00. Once the dust from the brick laying settled, Texas Tech went into the locker room up two, fueled by the play of Owens, a human eraser inside the paint that made getting buckets near the rim an impossibility. Izzo said his team was fortunate to be down just two at half after his offense stagnated and his inside execution failed.
The Second Half
Michigan State threw the first punch of the second half, corralling an offensive carom and sticking the ball back through the hoop. Maybe it was time for the Spartans to start dominating the glass, an area of concern for the Raiders heading into the game. Sophomore PG Davide Morretti, nearly invisible in the first half, answered Sparty’s stick-back with a three off an unselfish look from Culver. Beard’s Lottery Pick wing still struggled to find his shot, even missing a couple open looks in the heart of the MSU defense. Morretti followed up his three with a tough drive to the hoop before McQuaid knocked down a triple of his own. Tech continued hitting tough shots and playing absolutely stellar defense, opening up a 32-28 lead heading into the under-16:00 timeout.
Once play started again, Nick Ward finally announced his presence at the game. After being shut-out in the first, Ward drew a foul and then converted a tough layup against Odiase in the post. Sparty started gaining a little momentum and then apparent disaster struck for Texas Tech. With 14:43 to play in the game, Tariq Owens went down after turning his ankle 90 degrees. It was a tough play to watch and something you never want to see happen to such a key player on this stage. At that moment, I felt fairly confident Sparty was going to win this game. Boy was I wrong.
The Raiders rallied behind their fallen soldier and began to set the nets ablaze. First, Brandone Francis knocked in a big bucket, then Matt Mooney converted a tough drive to the cup. Hyron Edwards put through three points the old fashioned way and then Mooney struck again from deep after Ward pounded the ball inside on the other end. Sparty began relentlessly feeding Ward on the block, and it was mostly successful, but Tech’s shot making was just too much to overcome. Mooney again knocked down a tough jumper, taking Tech’s field goal count to a perfect 5/5 since the Owens injury, and the Raiders stormed into the under-12:00 with a 45-33 lead. All I could say was “WOW.”
Sparty was down but they didn’t panic, maintaining a steady diet of post-feeds. Izzo and his Spartans had been in this situation countless times before and won, so why should this moment be any different? MATT MOONEY, THAT’S WHY! The former Air Force Falcon and South Dakota Coyote played like a man possessed, pouring in yet another trey bomb and taking his point tally to 20. Cassius Winston coolly answered Mooney’s triple, but Culver decided it was about time he added a bucket of his own. Tech punched hard but Sparty rolled with the blows and kept the game competitive, even gaining on the Raiders since the last media timeout. In the midst of the boxing match, Owens made his triumphant (and unfathomable) return to the court, running out from the locker room to a cheering crowd of Raider faithful. Whatever they gave to Owens in that locker room to make him able to jog out and reenter the game, I’ll take two.
When the final eight minutes started there was a feeling in the air that Sparty catalyst Winston wasn’t done yet. The Big Ten Player of the Year started putting his team on his back, as he’d done countless times this season, and his Spartans slowly started to creep closer to the TTU total. Culver remained cold and Tech started to force tough threes, ultimately going three minutes without a score. As my colleague Jim so eloquently put it with 4:32 remaining, “Tech’s buttholes are tightening.” Despite yet another Sparty one-and-one front-end miss, the Tech lead was just five with less than 4:00 to play.
Aaron Henry stopped the bleeding from the free throw line, converting two attempts from the charity stripe after TTU’s Odiase went 1/2. The 6’6” freshman followed up the FT greatness with tough D on Mooney and a transition bucket, cutting the Tech lead to just one. The Sparty comeback was on…
… except it wasn’t, guys; we know the end to this story. Culver stepped up like the star player he is and buried a clutch two; Winston committed a bonehead offensive foul trying to free his teammate for a shot at the top of the key; and Odiase just TOOK the rock from Xavier Tillman out on the perimeter, extinguishing the Spartan run. Culver confidently stabbed the dagger in the Spartan heart with a three-pointer and the TTU student section erupted, throwing beer in the air and ruining their freshly purchased Final Four gear. The game was over and Texas Tech had won. Tech fans cheered, Sparty fans cried, and the NCAA fainted at the thought of a Virginia / Texas Tech National Championship.
This game can be summed up in a few short sentences: Sparty was cold. Texas Tech was lock-down defensively. Matt Mooney went Super Saiyan. MSU’s frontcourt was a non-factor.
The Post-Game Presser
Chris Beard, Matt Mooney, and Norense Odiase took the stage in the interview room following Tech’s historic victory. Beard talked about how special the moment was when Izzo, a coach he deeply admired, shook his hand at the end of the game and congratulated his win. He talked about how his team was fortunate that Michigan State missed some open shots, but ultimately he was proud of his players. I nervously asked my first ever press conference question, keenly aware of how much my shirt was pulsating from the heart trying to escape my chest. I asked Coach Beard what part of his gameplan, specifically, was he most proud of that his team successfully executed. His answer was toughness:
“I told the guys all week our plan was not to out-tough Michigan State. It was just to match their toughness, and I think we did that tonight, I think we played just as them.”
Beard was proud that his team went toe-to-toe with one of the best programs in the country.
The Michigan State presser was decidedly more depressing. Izzo, as he always is, was pure class. He complemented Chris Beard and added the following:
“… I think that this is a program where if the players play tough the players win. I have to give Chris a lot of credit. In general, we had some foul trouble that really hurt us, but in general the tougher team won. Give them credit, I really appreciate how hard his guys played…”
It was apparent the amount of respect Izzo held for Beard, a coach he knew looked up to him. He complimented the way Beard built this Tech program.
The toughest part of the presser was seeing the demeanor of Matt McQuaid and Cassisus Winston, both great players forced to answer questions on stage after losing the biggest games of their lives. Winston was poised and answered tough questions with honesty and humility. McQuaid’s responses were absolutely heart wrenching – I literally had to look away because I was about to cry. The senior said there was no excuse for the way he played down the stretch - he was tired but there was no excuse for being tired in the Final Four. McQuaid said Izzo hugged him at the end of the game and said he was sorry. He described how much he was going to miss playing for Michigan State, how much he was going to miss going to talk to Coach Izzo after practice or after class, how much he loved his coach and this program. Izzo holds McQuaid in the highest regard saying, “Some kids like it, some kids love it, some kids live it.” He said McQuaid is one of the all-time great guys and hardest workers he’s ever coached.