Virginia is 40 minutes of basketball away from the ultimate NCAA Tournament redemption.
The Cavaliers went 29-1 against teams not named Duke during the regular season and earned the No. 1 seed in the South Region, but their path to the national championship game was no breeze.
Long before Kyle Guy made three free throws with six-tenths of a second to lift his team to a 63-62 Final Four win over Auburn, Virginia was tested.
When the Cavaliers trailed 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb 28-14 12-plus minutes into their first-round game, who in Hooville didn’t wonder if they were reliving a 371-day-old nightmare?
“Surely, it can’t happen again,” Virginia faithful must have thought, scary visions of Jarius Lyles dancing in their heads.
There was no repeat of Maryland-Baltimore County’s historic 16-over-1 upset as the Cavaliers righted themselves and pulled away from the Bulldogs in the second half.
Virginia handled Oklahoma in Round 2 and won a 52-49 backyard brawl with Oregon in the Sweet 16.
Then the magic happened.
Against Purdue, the Cavaliers needed a last-second Mamadi Diakite jumper to force overtime before prevailing 80-75.
Then they blew a late 10-point lead against the Tigers in Minneapolis and when Guy’s late 3-pointer was off the mark, most thought Auburn had won.
But there was a whistle. Guy was the savior. Surely this is a team of destiny.
Now the ultimate battle of defenses looms as Virginia and Texas Tech both seek a first-ever national title. And the Red Raiders don’t care much about destiny.
Coach Chris Beard had to scramble after last season’s Elite Eight squad was hard hit by graduation. Texas Tech was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12.
Instead, Beard added a couple key transfers, and Jarret Culver turned into a strong NBA prospect as the Red Raiders won a share of the conference title.
For most of the season Texas Tech has occupied the top spot in KenPom.com’s defensive rankings (Virginia is No. 5). Over the past six weeks, the Red Raiders have seen enormous improvement on offense, rising from No. 99 in the country to 28th, and their wins in the past three rounds might be the best three-game stretch of any team this season.
A Sweet 16 showdown with Michigan and its No. 2 defense turned into a 63-44 Texas Tech blowout. The Red Raiders then stifled Gonzaga’s top-ranked offense in the second half of a 72-66 win that sent them to the first Final Four in school history.
Before facing Michigan State on Saturday, Beard said he wanted his team to be as tough as the Spartans.
Texas Tech built a 13-point lead in the second half and pulled away again after Michigan State got within one. The Red Raiders were seemingly everywhere in taking the Spartans out of their game.
“It was tough because we’re not used to a team forcing us one way and having to counter for that force,” Michigan State forward Zavier Tillman said. “They didn’t let us go middle, but at the same time, they didn’t just give us a layup. If somebody was there for a charge or if somebody was there to block a shot, it was just tough because you’d think you have them but then they would come back with a counter move and get a block or a turnover or something like that.”
Texas Tech held Michigan, Gonzaga and Michigan State all under 30 percent shooting from long range — the Wolverines were just 1-for-19. The Cavaliers enter Monday night’s game ninth in the nation in 3-point shooting at 39.3 percent. Guy and 6-foot-5 junior Ty Jerome made 6 of 15 from deep against Auburn.
Foul trouble could spell doom for both teams.
The Red Raiders typically run a seven-man rotation. Virginia had just 19 minutes from its bench against Auburn, and in the overtime win over the Boilermakers, the Cavaliers’ top six players accounted for all but two minutes on the court.
Texas Tech will need more from Culver, who was held without a field goal in the first half against Michigan State and finished with just 10 points on 2-of-9 shooting. Tariq Owens, Texas Tech’s 6-foot-11 rim protector, was in a walking cast during practice on Sunday. The St. John’s transfer, who turned his ankle going for a rebound against the Spartans, was expected to play Monday night.
If offense is your thing, you might want to peruse the NBA’s Monday night schedule.
Texas Tech bothers every move, every pass, making the court seem smaller for opposing offenses.
Virginia’s Pack Line defense held has allowed a lowest-in-the-nation 55.4 points per game this season. Texas Tech is third at 59 points per game.
Casual fans likely thought, “ugh,” when Las Vegas oddsmakers made the total 120. But for some a slugfest is just fine.
“I’ve watched a lot of Virginia games just as a fan,” Beard said, according to USA Today. “From time to time, we’ll come into the office in the morning and somebody will be like, ‘Man, did you see that game? Eleven points in the first half last night.’ Then we’ll run into the film room and watch some tape.’”
Defense will win this championship.
At Gaming Today we are dedicated to providing valuable up-to-date information on the casino industry and pari-mutuel race wagering. With news and features, plus expanded coverage in key areas – race and sports analysis, picks, tips, and handicapping.