MINNEAPOLIS — This is the sort of show Chris Beard would pay to see, and he used to do just that. As a small-college coach, he used to make an annual pilgrimage to the Final Four, even when he did not have enough cash for his own hotel room.
He would sleep on the floor of some Division I coach’s room and soak up all the atmosphere he could — all in preparation for a night like Saturday, and the season that led up to it.
Beard was able to rest easily this time as his Texas Tech team, a first-timer in the Final Four, beat Michigan State, 61-51, and advanced to Monday’s NCAA championship game.
A lifetime of long bus rides and tiny gyms gave Beard enough belief to pass along to his players, who bought in. He did it as early as last summer’s team get-togethers.
“I don’t know if it was the first day, but it was early,” said Matt Mooney, a graduate transfer from South Dakota who had 22 points. “He said we have enough in this gym in this locker room to play on the final Monday night. Either Coach is psychic — he might be psychic — but here we are on the final Monday night. We just believed in him.”
Now here they are, ready for the final night of the season and a game against Virginia, yet another team that thrives by keeping the other side from scoring.
Texas Tech’s trademark defense was better than the trademark defense of Michigan State, the team that ousted No. 1 overall seed Duke last Sunday. Norense Odiase, the senior big man who epitomized the Red Raiders’ penchant for sacrifice by leading the movement to have players give up their cellphones at night on road trips (including this one), sewed it up with two free throws that made it 60-51 with 39 seconds left.
“We knew we weren’t going to out-tough Michigan State. We just wanted to match their toughness,” said Beard, whose long trek to this Final Four wound through one stop in which his team shared an arena with a rodeo corral and another stop in which he had to drive a team van that had no heat and only an FM radio.
His love for the game and for the business never flagged, which made him a kindred spirit with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
Both sides in this game recognized that defense can soothe a team’s nerves and exacerbate the opponent’s jitters. In the first half Saturday night, Texas Tech’s shooting percentage was an unsightly .308 — and still it was the better figure in the game. Michigan State shot .304.
In the second half, Mooney found the range and his teammates kept finding him. “He’s obviously very, very talented, but the thing that really impressed me tonight was his courage,’’ Beard said of the guard who has had his own long sojourn, having started at Air Force before South Dakota. “Just to be able to make those big plays, he wanted to be in those moments. He was making plays on both ends. I love his poise. He’s a special player.”
He and the Red Raiders beat Michigan State at their own game. The score at halftime, 23-21 in favor of Texas Tech, seemed like a throwback to the peach basket era. All told, Tech held MSU star Cassius Winston to 4-for-16 shooting.
“I’ve heard Chris talk about how he built this team,” Izzo said. “I guess somewhere there’s a compliment to us that he kind of believes in the same philosophy, which I think is true in any sport. Defense wins championships. We didn’t defend so bad until the last five, six, seven minutes, then we fell apart. Hats off to a very, very good Texas Tech team, very well-coached. They hurt us tonight. They deserved to win the game.”