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Former St. John's big man Tariq Owens reaches Final Four with Texas Tech

The graduate transfer leads Texas Tech in field-goal percentage (.613) and blocks per game (2.4).

Texas Tech's Tariq Owens warms up during a

Texas Tech's Tariq Owens warms up during a practice session for Saturday's Final Four on Friday in Minneapolis. Credit: AP/Jeff Roberson

MINNEAPOLIS — Tariq Owens says he is a better basketball player and a better man than he was before he spent two seasons at St. John’s. He has only warm thoughts about the program and everyone involved with it. He just decided that he would be even better off somewhere else.

“I knew Texas Tech was the right spot when I came down to visit and I saw how many guys were in the gym after they just were in the Elite Eight,” he said Friday, on the eve of his new team’s Final Four game against Michigan State. “They had just gotten knocked out of the tournament and a week later, to see everybody in the gym multiple times in the day, just spoke to me and showed me how dedicated they were.

“They weren’t satisfied that they had made it to the Elite Eight and they were upset that they got knocked out so early. They lost to the eventual champions in Villanova. That just spoke wonders to me and made me really want to be down there.”

Now here he is, ready to challenge any Spartans player who comes in the lane, ready to take on the team that knocked off overall No. 1 seed Duke last Sunday. Owens, a 6-10 graduate transfer, withstood a whirlwind culture change and was a big factor — literally and figuratively — in Texas Tech’s next step.

It was the fourth and final step in his college journey, which started with a commitment to Ohio University, which he reconsidered after coach Jim Christian (of Bethpage) left for Boston College. Owens switched to Tennessee.

“Tariq was totally committed to Tennessee. He had a coaching change,” Tech coach Chris Beard said. “Then at St. John’s, he had earned his degree and was looking for another opportunity.

“I’ll tell you this, he showed a lot of loyalty,” Beard said. He was referring to the fact that Owens was close to assistant coach Al Pinkins at Tennessee and was drawn to Texas Tech when Pinkins worked there. Last spring, just after Owens announced he was leaving Queens, Pinkins left to be Florida’s associate coach. Beard offered to let Owens go with Pinkins, but Owens chose to honor his commitment in Lubbock.

Owens this season is averaging 8.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in a little more than 25 minutes per game. He has started 35 of 36 games and leads the team in field-goal percentage (.613) and blocks per game (2.4).

Owens said a piece of his heart still is loyal to the Red Storm. “I’ll forever be thankful for the time I spent at St. John’s. I had two Hall of Fame coaches up there in coach [Chris] Mullin and Mitch Richmond. I learned so many things about the game of basketball,” he said. “It was never one of the situations where St. John’s was completely out of the equation. I was really close to my guys there. I talk to them every single day. I just had to make a decision to do what was right for me and my family.”

His dad, Renard, a Queens native who is a police lieutenant in Baltimore, is here with Tariq’s two sisters. Owens said his father pushed him to go to the gym when he didn’t feel like it. Playing in this game also honors his late mother, Cassandra, who died in 2009 of pancreatic cancer.

“I made a promise to my mom that I would do everything I could with basketball, keep myself out of trouble, keep myself focused. I try to honor that promise every day,” he said, adding that he says a prayer for her when he steps on the court.

Nothing personal against the team in Jamaica, Queens, that just squeaked into The Big Dance and quickly bowed out. “I love the program. I loved being back home, being in front of my family, being close to them. I had to make a very tough decision,” Owens said. “And it ended up being the right decision.”

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