Texas Tech's Tariq Owens warms up during a practice session for...

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 — The path to the NCAA championship game is a long and occasional painful one. That was especially true for Texas Tech’s Tariq Owens, who was trying and hoping like crazy just to be able to play.

Owens, a graduate transfer from St. John’s, came down awkwardly after going up for an attempted block against Michigan State Saturday night, spent Sunday in treatment on his ankle just so he would not miss the chance of a lifetime. He got the start in Monday's title game. 

That he made it back into the game late in the second half Saturday was a lift for his team in the 61-51 victory that got the Red Raiders into the final for the first time.

“I think it was a turning point, especially with that moment of the game because Tariq always had our back during the season,” teammate Davide Moretti said, adding that Tech was motivated to stay ahead without the big guy during a key stretch. “Every time somebody got beat, he was there to block the shots. I felt like we had to pay him back for all the work he has done during the season.”

Owens said the other day that he still has affection for his Red Storm teammates and respect for his coaches, but he added that he just wanted to try something different. He had become interested in Texas Tech through contact with then-assistant coach Al Pinkins, with whom Owens became friendly during his brief time at Tennessee (before St. John’s). Pinkins left last year to become associate head coach at Florida and Owens was tempted to follow him, but he told Texas Tech coach Chris Beard that he committed to the school in Lubbock and wanted to stay.

Beard said on Sunday that Owens and fellow graduate transfer Matt Mooney made a big impact. “They fit in and contributed so quickly because they wanted to,” the coach said. “Once they got their releases or declared themselves as grad transfers, both guys just wanted to talk about winning. Those guys are two of the most unselfish people I ever recruited.”

High among Owens’ priorities was being able to share the Final Four experience with his father, Renard, a police lieutenant in Baltimore now but a Queens guy at heart. The elder Owens was born in New York and developed a deep love for basketball there. He passed that along to Tariq, and not a minute too soon. The son said that basketball was his outlet after his mother, Cassandra, died of pancreatic cancer 10 years ago.

Owens said earlier at the Final Four that his basketball career got a jump start from Renard. “When I first started playing basketball, I wanted to play but my dad was the main driving force. There were days when I had to go the gym and I’d rather hang out with my friends. My dad was like, 'You’re going to the gym.' I’d go to the gym and I’d be crying,” he said. “He pushed me and once I saw everything click, he didn’t have to push me anymore. I wanted to do it for myself.”

Virginia's NY connection

New York’s other significant connection to the title game was Virginia’s Ty Jerome of New Rochelle. When teammate Kyle Guy made reference at a news conference here to Harlem’s Rucker Playground, he nodded toward Jerome, indicating that the Westchester kid had played some ball there.

Jerome went to high school at Iona Prep and has a place in his heart for Iona College, which made The Big Dance as a No. 16 seed. The Gaels led North Carolina at halftime before falling, 88-73. “I watched it,” he said. “They came out firing, making a lot of threes. They just couldn’t keep it up for 40 minutes. They’re a good team.”

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