MINNEAPOLIS — If there is one thing that makes the NCAA tournament such a unique part of American culture, it’s that it almost always produces games and moments that no one can see coming.
That said, Monday night’s national championship game between Virginia and Texas Tech might very well come down to this: first team to 50 points wins.
Virginia leads the country in defense, giving up fewer than 56 points per game. Texas Tech is third.
So it would seem likely that 50 points would be enough to win. But this is the NCAA tournament, so the final might be 81-80. In 1983, Jim Valvano told the media the day before the title game that if his N.C. State team won the opening tip, “we might not shoot until Tuesday,” because he knew how scary high-powered Houston’s “Phi Slama Jama” team could be when allowed to run.
State attacked the Cougars from the opening tip, and it was Houston that tried to shorten the game late. Everyone remembers Lorenzo Charles’s dunk at the buzzer. The final was 54-52. No shot clock. No three-point shot.
Monday’s final might be similar, even with the 30-second clock and the three-point line.
There’s simply no doubt Virginia and Texas Tech have gotten this far with defense, albeit employing entirely different styles. The Cavaliers, who pulled another stunning escape to beat Auburn, 63-62, in Saturday’s first semifinal, wear you down with their pack-line defense, making you think you’re open from the three-point line when you’re really not, and attacking anyone who decides to go inside.
The Red Raiders, who smothered Michigan State in their 61-51 victory , have held their past three opponents a combined 74 points under their average. Michigan, which was averaging 69 points, scored 44. Gonzaga, averaging nearly 90, scored 69. The Spartans were averaging 79 points heading into Saturday’s game.
“They’re just physical on every single possession,” Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said this past week. “Nothing you get against them is easy.”
Texas Tech goes after anything that moves on the perimeter. No pass is uncontested. Leave the ball anywhere near a Red Raider, and it is apt to be slapped away an instant later.
Late in Saturday’s game, with Texas Tech leading 55-51 and 1:23 to go, Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman caught the ball at the high post and turned, both hands on the ball, to scan the floor for a seam or an open teammate. Before he could think to make a move, Norense Odiase slapped the ball loose for a clean steal.
Twenty-five seconds later, Jarrett Culver hit a three from the wing for a 58-51 lead. Just like that — ballgame. Michigan State had fought back from a 13-point deficit to trail just 52-51 on an Aaron Henry layup with 2:54 left, but Coach Tom Izzo admitted that he never felt comfortable from start to finish.
“Some of it was our foul trouble, but they really beat us up with their defense,” he said. “Not that many teams have done that to us through the years, but they did it to us tonight. We certainly could have played better, but credit to them for making us miss shots I felt like we could make.”
Texas Tech won on a night in which Culver, its leading scorer, hit his last two shots to finish 3 for 12 from the field. It won on a night when its best shot-blocker, Tariq Owens, limped from the floor early in the second half and didn’t return for almost eight minutes. It also won on a night when Matt Mooney, a graduate transfer from South Dakota who began his college career at Air Force, produced 22 points, making tough shots from all over the floor the entire game.
“I thought he showed a lot of courage,” Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard said. “He knew we needed him to make some shots and he did it.”
The Red Raiders held Michigan State to 15-for-47 shooting , with star point guard Cassius Winston making just 4 of 16 attempts while shooting guard Matt McQuad was 4 for 11 , including a wide-open missed three-pointer with 1:50 to go and his team trailing 54-51.
McQuaid might have missed because he was surprised to find himself so wide open. That didn’t happen for the Spartans most of the night.
“I always say toughness wins,” Izzo said. “Tonight, they were tougher than us.”
It was difficult to label one team tougher than the other in Virginia’s escape against Auburn. The Cavaliers did something they seldom do: blow a late 10-point advantage, which led to a 61-57 Auburn lead with 17 seconds remaining following a 14-0 run .
But Auburn made a critical mistake by not using one of the two fouls it had to give on Virginia’s next possession, allowing Kyle Guy to hit a three from the corner to make it 61-60 with 10 seconds left.
Then came the controversial non-call, and a call that will be remembered at Auburn and Virginia forever. After Jared Harper made one of two free throws to give the Tigers a 62-60 lead, the Cavaliers rushed downcourt with Auburn now trying to use its remaining fouls.
Ty Jerome appeared to dribble the ball off his foot, pick it up and resume his dribble. The officials let them play on until Jerome was fouled — Auburn’s sixth — with 1.5 seconds to play.
Then came the inbounds pass to Guy, then Samir Doughty making contact as Guy rose to shoot and the officials calling a three-shot foul on Doughty.
Auburn people will swear for the next 100 years that the contact didn’t affect the shot. Virginia people will swear just as long that a foul is a foul. Either way, Guy made all three shots with 0.6 seconds on the clock, and the Cavaliers survived — again.
They have two straight wins that are nothing short of miraculous, with Saturday’s victory coming on the heels of last week’s great escape against Purdue . They have used at least eight of their nine lives — but are also just one victory away from the national championship.
“If you’re a basketball fan, Virginia’s is the kind of story you pull for after the heartbreak they went through last year,” Beard said. “It’s a great comeback story.”
Beard will not be pulling for Virginia to complete the story Monday night. He will send his players out to harass the Cavaliers from the opening tip.
This will be a matchup of young coaches — Virginia’s Tony Bennett is 49, Beard is 46 — and programs that have never won a men’s national championship. Only one of them will enter the college basketball pantheon Monday night. Only one school will hang the banner everyone dreams about.
It is almost certain to come down to one possession, one shot, one foul called — or not called. It is likely to be a game in which one possession decides the title.
And the first team to 50 might very well be the national champion.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.