Chris Beard called his team together early in the summer and delivered a message that would have startled almost anyone outside the huddle.
The coach told his players they had enough talent to play on the season’s final Monday night.
Texas Tech was undeniably on the rise under Beard, but the Red Raiders had never appeared in a Final Four, much less a championship game.
They’ll make their debut Monday.
The Red Raiders played their coach’s words into existence Saturday night at US Bank Stadium with more lockdown defense and savvy shot-making, a combination that that yielded a 61-51 victory over college basketball blue blood Michigan State.
“Why not us?” Beard said afterward.
Why not indeed.
The Red Raiders (31-6) will face Virginia in a slug crawl of a championship game. The initial over-under of 119 points is the lowest in championship game history, according to SportsBetting, easily surpassing the previous record of 128.
Michigan State might say that number seems a bit high after becoming the latest team to fail to crack Texas Tech’s defensive code.
“Very seldom in my career have we kind of got beat up,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said, “and tonight was one of those nights.”
Beard said he wanted his team just to match the Spartans’ toughness but they exceeded it. Michigan State (32-7) shot 31.9% and made only seven of 24 three-pointers (29.2%). Starting post players Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins combined for just three points in the first half.
The Spartans made one final charge after falling behind by as many as 13 points in the second half. Aaron Henry’s driving layup pulled Michigan State to within 52-51 and even after Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver countered with a floating jumper, the Spartans had two more chances to tie the score.
But Cassius Winston committed an offensive foul and Matt McQuaid, who had earlier departed the game with an apparent leg injury, missed a three-pointer. The Spartans wouldn’t score again as Texas Tech closed the game on a 9-0 push, thrilling a rabid pack of fans that included former Red Raiders and current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the NFL’s MVP.
“We threw a lot of punches out there tonight,” Beard said. “We tried a lot of things on defense, and most of them worked.”
The Red Raiders also withstood an injury to forward Tariq Owens, who went down hard several minutes into the second half. Owens had to be helped off the court and into the locker room but triggered cheers when he reemerged in sight of the crowd of 72,711 with a little less than seven minutes to play.
Guard Matt Mooney scored 22 points and Culver added 10 as the only players in double figures for the Red Raiders. It was more than enough on a night their defense did most of the work.
“Just what we do every day,” Texas Tech forward Norense Odiase said. “Our toughness, our grit to fight every 40 minutes, every possession. We just brought both.”
Winston finished with 16 points but needed 16 shots to get there, making only four. The shooting struggles were commonplace, with McQuaid making four of 11 shots and Goins missing all four of his attempts.
As he sat down to take questions after the game, Beard rubbed his eyes and shook his head in what appeared to be disbelief about his team’s skyrocketing fortunes.
They did not advance to the postseason in his first season and made it to a regional final last season before their current breakthrough.
Of course, to them it seemed preordained.
“On the first day of practice,” Mooney said, “this is what we prayed for and hoped for, and here it is.”