Texas Tech was the school with no Final Four experience, the team led by someone who didn’t reach the Division I head coaching ranks until 2015.
By the time Chris Beard landed his first D-I job at Arkansas-Little Rock, Tom Izzo had already taken Michigan State to seven Final Fours.
But Izzo had a sinking feeling early in Saturday night’s second semifinal that the Spartans were in trouble against Beard’s relentless Texas Tech squad.
“It just didn’t seem like we had what it takes to compete against a team like that,” Izzo said.
By night’s end, an announced crowd of 72,711 at U.S. Bank Stadium and everyone else watching on television understood why, as the Red Raiders outmuscled Michigan State 61-51 to reach the first NCAA championship game in school history.
The Red Raiders overcame an off night from their best player, projected NBA lottery pick Jarrett Culver, who managed only one point through the game’s first 30 minutes.
South Dakota transfer Matt Mooney more than picked up the slack, scoring a game-high 22 points. Culver added 10 points and Brandone Francis nine for the Red Raiders, who will meet Virginia on Monday in a battle of two teams that have never won an NCAA title.
After getting a congratulatory handshake on the court from Izzo, Beard took exception when a reporter called Texas Tech’s run unlikely.
“Why do you think it’s unlikely?” Beard said. “I’ve only been the head coach of Texas Tech for three years. … Last year, we lost in the Elite Eight to the eventual national champion [Villanova].
“We won the Big 12 regular-season championship this year. … I respect the question, but why not us? We’ve got good players. We’ve got a great university. We play in arguably the best league in the country.”
Texas Tech came in leading the nation in defensive efficiency and stifled Michigan State’s big men from the start. The Spartans didn’t get a single point in the first half from three key post players — Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins and Nick Ward.
The Spartans made seven first-half turnovers — the same number they had for the full game in their upset of Duke on Sunday — and finished with 11.
“To be honest with you, I was ecstatic at halftime,” Izzo said. “I said we’re two down [at 23-21], the way we played. … I thought we had a real chance.”
With 14:43 remaining, Texas Tech had a three-point lead but seemed to be in trouble. Culver was on the bench with three fouls and one point, and 6-10 forward Tariq Owens limped to the sideline with a twisted ankle.
But Mooney kept hitting shots, and the Red Raiders extended their lead to 13 at one point before Michigan State mounted a comeback.
The Spartans got within to 52-51 on an Aaron Henry layup with 2:54 left, but that’s when Culver came alive. He made a jump shot, stretching the lead to three, added a free throw and then swished a three-pointer with 58.2 seconds remaining that proved to be the dagger.
“My shot wasn’t going in all night, but when it went in late, it just felt good,” Culver said.
The Red Raiders insisted they weren’t worried even when Michigan State made its late run. “We played a tough schedule in one of the best leagues in the country,” Mooney said. “That got us ready for that.”
Beard had called Izzo his idol in the days leading up the game, saying his team has such catchphrases as “Michigan State toughness” and “Tom Izzo rebounding.”
Michigan State’s first-team All-America point guard, Cassius Winston, finished with 16 points but shot only 4-for-16 from the field.
“What you’ve got to understand is that’s a [Texas Tech] team with four grad seniors, and that’s a tough, rugged team,” Izzo said. “Chris did an unbelievable job of putting them together. I really like his team.”