One of the best defensive teams in the nation was one stop away from a national championship. Give Chris Beard those odds every time.
But Texas Tech momentarily lost Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter, who with plenty of space and time swished a corner three-pointer with 13 seconds remaining in regulation.
The bucket tied the game that the Cavaliers went on to win 85-77 in overtime, delivering a resounding response to last season’s historic NCAA Tournament flameout.
In one year becoming the first team to lose to a No. 16 seed to winning the program’s first NCAA men’s basketball championship, Virginia and coach Tony Bennett are the definition of resiliency and determination.
The Cavaliers might not have completed the drama if Tech had better defended Virginia’s final possession.
“We work on that every day in practice,” Beard said. “Three-point lead, we don’t want to give up a three. I trust my players. We work on it every single day. I’ll have to go back and watch the film.”
Tech had taken a 68-65 lead with 22 seconds remaining on Norense Odiase’s two free throws. Too much time remained to foul and the Red Raiders sent a Virginia shooter to the free-throw line.
But Tech clearly didn’t want to surrender an unchallenged triple.
Jarrett Culver was guarding Hunter, who set up in the right corner in front of the Virginia bench. Cavaliers guard Ty Jerome easily dribbled around Odiase at the top. There was probably enough time for Jerome to score the layup and send Tech back to the line.
But Culver, the Big 12 player of the year and a solid defender, left Hunter to meet Jerome, who flipped a pass to an open Hunter. Culver’s close-out out wasn’t quick enough to prevent Hunter from setting his feet, squaring his shoulder and dropping in the biggest shot of his career.
“Ty hit me in my pocket,” Hunter said. “I took my time, and those reps I do shooting in practice, it’s just off right now.”
Tech had plenty of time to break the tie but wound up with a Culver three-point attempt that wasn’t close.
Virginia had defeated Oregon, Purdue and Auburn to reach the title game with some late, even last-second, heroics. This one didn’t go down to the last second but will be forever remembered in Virginia hoop lore.
“In that situation, with less than a shot clock (30 seconds) left, we’re trying to play really sound defense with objectives,” Beard said. “No three-point shots, no and-ones, and we have to secure the defensive rebound.
“We came up short. But give Virginia credit. They have so much poise.”
After a first half in which he missed eight of nine shots and had five points, Hunter took over after the break. He scored 22 points in the second half and overtime, finishing with a career high 27.
Tech guard Matt Mooney said he should have come up bigger on Virginia’s final possession.
“Great pass,” Mooney said. “I should have rotated.”
Because of the timing, the shot may not have been as dramatic as the previous late three-pointer to send a championship game into overtime. Kansas’ Mario Chalmers left seconds on the clock when his tree tied the 2008 title game against Memphis, and the Jayhawks went on to win in the extra period.
This one will stay with Tech, which was making its first trip to the national championship game. A decade ago, the program began a stretch of four coaches in four years.
The fourth coach was Tubby Smith, who won a national title at Kentucky and got the program back to the NCAA Tournament. When Smith left for Memphis after the 2016 season, athletic director Kirby Hocutt hired Beard ... and the growth has been spectacular.
This season, Tech (31-7) shared the Big 12 regular-season championship with Kansas State and became the first team from the conference to reach an NCAA title game since Kansas in 2012.
The Red Raiders rolled through the NCAA Tournament, winning their five games by a 14-point average.
That’s why the emotions were so raw afterward. Tariq Owens, playing on a sprained ankle, wrapped his arm around Mooney in the locker room.
“We played our hearts out,” Owens said. “That’s just life, though.”
Mooney didn’t lift his head and spoke in a quiet tone.
More than once, Beard had to compose himself and rub his eyes while speaking to reporters.
“I told our guys I love them,” Beard said. “And our relationship is just getting started. … In terms of Texas Tech basketball, we’re not going anywhere. We’ll be back.”