Some coaches land their stars at AAU tournaments in big cities. Texas Tech’s Chris Beard found the player who shot him into the national championship game by flying to Vermillion, S.D., trekking across a floor sticky with dried beer, and sitting on a couch that folded him like a dry-cleaned shirt.
“Our couch was broken,’’ Matt Mooney said. “We had two couches. The broken one, you didn’t want coaches to sit in it because you just sink all the way to the ground.’’
Beard was rewarded for his butt hitting bottom.
Saturday night in the Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium, Mooney, playing with his third college program, scored 22 points as Tech beat Michigan State 61-51 to advance to the national title game on Monday night against Michigan State.
“Matt Mooney is one of the best stories in college basketball,’’ Beard keeps saying.
He won’t hear many arguments from South Dakota. Mooney was an undersized and unselfish high school player in Illinois who attracted one Division 1 scholarship offer — at Air Force. He spent one season in Colorado Springs and transferred to South Dakota, where he practiced in the DakotaDome.
The basketball court sat in the middle of a multipurpose arena hosting gymnasts, volleyball players and everyone else on scholarship. Mooney would practice his jumper amid a Midwestern Olympiad, ideal training for shooting in a curtained and cavernous football stadium.
“I think it did help, because you had to adjust your depth perception,’’ Mooney said.
Mooney said he loves South Dakota but wanted to play for a Power Five conference school with a chance to go to the NCAA tournament. He became a graduate transfer who accepted Beard’s offer and found himself in basketball nirvana — amid players and coaches who would shoot with him at 5 a.m. or 11 p.m.
His performance on Saturday caused the unusual sight of bobbing cowboy hats in U.S. Bank Stadium, and ensured him at least one more day of practice. He scored nine points in the first half, then scored 11 in a burst midway through the second half, converting a drive before swishing three straight three-point shots that gave Texas Tech a 48-35 lead.
Mooney hounded Michigan State star point guard Cassius Winston, handled the ball, and took over as Tech’s leading scorer, future NBA lottery pick Jarrett Culver, went without a basket for three quarters of the game.
“Coach told me it was my time,’’ Mooney said. “I said, ‘I got you, Coach.’ ’’
Mooney finished with 22 points on 8-for-16 shooting, three rebounds, one assist and one steal. He committed just one turnover against Michigan State’s typically physical defense. And he never had to worry about getting hit in the head by a volleyball.
“For people that don’t know, you’ve got every sport in there,’’ Mooney said this week of the DakotaDome. “You’ve got a practice gym in the back and the main court in the middle and you’ve got track running around you, football lifting weights up in the weight room, you’ve got golfers hitting golf balls into the net and something from every team.
“It’s crazy. It’s distracting, but you’re right there in the middle, and you get used to it.”
Mooney’s rise is as improbable as that of his coach and program. Mooney is with his third school; Beard was coaching a semipro team in 2012, and Tech had never been to a Final Four before this season. If the Red Raiders win on Monday, they may have to provide photo ID before they’re allowed to touch the trophy.
“I dreamed it,’’ Mooney said. “So I’d say to anybody, just keep dreaming.’’
A broadcaster stopped Mooney as he was entering the Tech locker room after his news conference.
“You’re from where?’’ Mooney was asked.
“Wauconda, Illinois,’’ he said.
“Why did you have to go to Air Force?’’ he was asked.
“I was small, skinny,’’ he said. “A late bloomer.’’
But not too late.