ANAHEIM — At some point in the gripping West Region final on Saturday, a melancholy reality might have settled in: One way or the other, the NCAA tournament was about to dismiss a team of surpassing fortitude and sublime caliber, right at the bracket’s harshest juncture.
It was about to shed Gonzaga, that No. 1 seed forever towering from the West with entrenched know-how and splashy talent, or it was about to lose Texas Tech, that No. 3 seed and defensive marvel trained in the hot barns of the Big 12. When Gonzaga became the one to depart as the saddest 33-4 team extant, by 75-69 after a frantic final minute, that result served a further purpose.
It flattered to the hilt Texas Tech, whose players immediately began exulting in that singular way players do when they have secured their program’s first Final Four berth. They scrambled to the middle of the court in hopping hugs, and then they tumbled over onto each other in a heaving heap of mirth. In just the third season of Coach Chris Beard, the Red Raiders (30-6) will head off for Minneapolis where either Duke or Michigan State will have to deal with their uncannily attentive defense, which seemed to inject a steady weariness into Gonzaga through the struggle in Honda Center.
Gonzaga, somehow, will go home to Spokane, Wash., its third final eight in the last five seasons ending just shy of its second Final Four in three. All season long, it seemed it might take a considerable force to fell them, so one did.
“Hey, we lost to a really, really, really good basketball team in a great basketball game,” Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said, calling it “a tough way to end a spectacular season and year and era.”
“The Final Four is awesome and all that,” Beard said, “but the most cool thing is I get to coach these guys again. We get to go after it in practice and travel and spend time together.”
It seemed that had the Red Raiders and the Bulldogs played on into eternity, as basketball players often wish, they might never have eluded one another. Gonzaga had brought the nation’s most efficient offense. Texas Tech had brought the nation’s most efficient defense, permitting 58.7 points per game. For so much of the late afternoon in California, five points proved the largest lead for either. In one 76-second swatch amid the first half, the two ran the floor to shoot 6 for 6, 3 for 3 each in the gathering thrills.
With 11:35 left in the game, as Gonzaga led 50-49, Gonzaga had shot 18 for 40 from the floor.
So had Texas Tech.
Yet the less-experienced Red Raiders squeezed out their way with the here-and-there plays that were always going to decide this scrap.
One came with 3:50 left, when Davide Moretti, a 46.2-percent three-point shooter from Italy, provided a 63-58 lead with his first of the day, a shot so cocksure that when told he looked absolutely certain of it, he said, “That’s true. That’s true.”
Another came with 1:42 left, when star Jarrett Culver trusted Moretti over on the right, and the trust proved accurate as the ball swished and the score stood 66-60 and the two of them ran the floor primal-screaming at each other.
Momentum, once hard-won, gained one more notch with 56 seconds left, when Rui Hachimura, one of Gonzaga’s two stars turning up on NBA mock-draft lists, launched from the corner, but Tariq Owens went flying toward him, blocking the shot dramatically and saving it from going out of bounds.
“I mean, this whole locker room’s full of street dogs,” said Owens, a graduate transfer with a degree from St. John’s. “Anytime there’s a loose ball, there’s not one person on this team who will not go get it.”
Only from there did the game veer hard toward something unfitting. With 22 seconds left, Josh Perkins, a Gonzaga mainstay with national title game experience from 2017 and an implausible 153 college games, stopped on a break and flashed his big guts in nailing a three-point shot to make the score 69-67. When it stood 71-69 with 10 seconds left, Perkins, reacting instinctively, somehow reached across the baseline as Texas Tech’s Matt Mooney tried to inbound the ball, and his contact with Mooney brought a technical foul, a clinching blow and a closing haunt to a sprawling career.
“He was ball-faking a lot and I thought he ball-faked in front of me, instinctively reached in, bonehead play. Something I will think about forever,” Perkins said solemnly soon after using the phrases “countless memories” and “no putting it into words” and “best five years of my life.”
Culver scored 19 points on 5-for-19 shooting and added five rebounds. Mooney scored 17, Moretti 12, Hachimura 22, Brandon Clarke 18 with 12 rebounds, Perkins 16 with six assists. All shined. So in the gist of it, Gonzaga’s offense had looked increasingly troubled against Texas Tech’s ever-mounting resistance.
Said Culver, “I feel like we get stronger because we always make adjustments.”
Said Norense Odiase, the defensive leader and bulwark, “Our big thing at halftime was control the tempo, make our plays, don’t turn the ball over, box out, get rebounds and control the game from there.”
Clarke, Gonzaga’s other leading actor, praised the Red Raiders’ “handsy” defense and noted that while his season high in turnovers had been five, on Saturday he sprayed five around the first half alone.
Said Few, “They are really good at reaching, poking and digging things out of there. This is the best team I’ve ever had for taking care of the ball. We’ve had games with four turnovers, three turnovers, which is unheard-of, halves with zero turnovers.”
His team wound up with 16, which turned out only three more than Texas Tech in this game of tiny margins. Yet the tiny margin had spoken as the tiny margins do in late March, so when they did, the locker rooms on the opposite end of the building sounded the difference.
“We really care about each other,” Hachimura, a Japanese-Beninese sensation, said with reddened eyes as he was surrounded in America by Japanese reporters.
Nearby, Zach Norvell Jr. pondered a season briskly shut down and said he had reveled in “every day. Every day.”
Across the way, Culver hugged the West Regional trophy and soon said, “It’s really unbelievable, man.” Odiase said, “It’s insane, man.” And back in the interview room, asked for a closing statement, Beard, the vagabond coach who stopped at every conceivable level before forging Lubbock’s finest male-basketball hour, said only, “Texas Tech’s going to the Final Four.”
He might even have believed it.
— Chuck Culpepper
Gonzaga on upset alert with 2 minutes to play
Texas Tech is on a 6-2 run to take a five-point lead.
Texas Tech back in front
The Red Raiders launched a 6-0 run to retake the lead, 53-50, with 10:30 to play. Texas Tech has forced Gonzaga into 12 turnovers and challenged Rui Hachimura’s ballhandling on the block. The result was consecutive layups from Davide Moretti, Brandone Francis and Tariq Owens to turn a three-point deficit into an equal lead.
Gonzaga leads Texas Tech at the half, 37-35
The Red Raiders led by as many as five points. The Bulldogs led by as many as four. In between, there were nine lead changes, and after 20 minutes, Gonzaga was two points the better after a dunk before the buzzer by Brandon Clarke.
After a slow start controlled by Texas Tech’s trademark stifling defense, the game opened up with a flurry of three-pointers and midrange jump shots and a plodding deliberate pace tilted faster in Gonzaga’s favor. Power forward Rui Hachimura leads the Bulldogs with 13 points. Matt Mooney has 11 points for the Red Raiders, as star scorer and Big 12 Conference player of the year Jarrett Culver struggled to find his shot.
Bulldogs and Red Raiders heating up
After a slow start, everything seems to be falling for both teams with 6:30 to play in the first half. Texas Tech is up, 31-29, thanks to some recent three-point shooting from Tariq Owens and Matt Mooney.
Texas Tech ahead early
With 12 minutes to go in the first half, the Red Raiders’ effort on defense is paying off for a 13-11 lead. Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura has 7 points on 2-of-5 shooting, but the rest of the team is 1-of-5 from the floor and 0-for-4 from three-point range. Texas Tech isn’t fairing much better, with 5-of-12 shooting. Center Norense Odiase is playing with two fouls.
How they got here: Gonzaga (33-3) finished the regular season 29-2, before losing to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast tournament final. The top-seeded Zags crushed No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson in the NCAA tournament’s first round, 87-49. They beat No. 9 Baylor in the second round, 83-71, and rarely trailed in a 72-58 win over No. 4 Florida State in the Sweet 16.
Texas Tech (29-6) shared the Big 12 regular season title with Kansas State before falling to West Virginia in the conference tournament quarterfinals. The No. 3 seed Red Raiders have hardly been tested in the NCAA tournament, with comfortable wins over No. 14 Northern Kentucky (72-57), No. 6 Buffalo (78-58) and No. 2 Michigan (63-44).
— Jacob Bogage
Elite Eight schedule
Anaheim (West Region)
Louisville (South Region)
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 3 Purdue, 8:49 p.m., TBS
Kansas City (Midwest Region)
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Auburn, 2:20 p.m., CBS
Washington (East Region)
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 5:05 p.m., CBS
A largely overlooked recruit out of high school, the Texas Tech guard’s profile has risen with a breakout sophomore season and a sensational NCAA tournament.
The Red Raiders have become an NCAA tournament wrecking ball on defense, with locker-room energy to match. Next up: perhaps the nation’s best offense.
The Bulldogs’ Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke have garnered all-conference honors, but the junior forwards remain divisive NBA prospects.
It’s easy to criticize top-seeded Virginia’s ponderous style, columnist Jerry Brewer writes, but you can’t argue with the results: a berth in the Elite Eight.
The prolific guard says he doesn’t think about shooting slumps, not about the torrid performance that drove the Boilermakers to their third straight Sweet 16.
Diminutive freshman guard shows poise beyond his years in helping the top-seeded Cavaliers reach the brink of first Final Four berth since 1984.
He got 49 straight picks correct, but took a hard tumble Thursday night.