MINNEAPOLIS — When all was said and done, it was not about one-and-done. To the contrary, the college basketball season that ended Monday night was all about the months and years of perseverance that go into producing one shining moment.
That Texas Tech and Virginia were the teams in the national championship game before more than 70,000 people at U.S. Bank Stadium was testament to the long haul over short-run stardom. That final matchup was a tribute to defense over flamboyant dunks and flashy three-pointers.
The stretch of November through late March was dominated by brilliant young stars, notably Zion Williamson, who are expected to leave for the NBA after one year. But in the end — and perhaps in an omen of what is to come when the NBA changes its eligibility rules to allow in 18-year-olds — it was process and patience that endured. Both put themselves in position to star in “One Shining Moment,” the traditional post-tournament video.
Texas Tech has two key players, Matt Mooney and former St. John’s big man Tariq Owens, who have been around for five years at three schools apiece. The Red Raiders are coached by Chris Beard, a peripatetic basketball lifer who has worked at all levels of the sport, including many that were far from glamorous, such as a grassroots minor league named after the old American Basketball Association.
“What sticks on me is that he coached in the ABA in South Carolina and was sleeping out of his car. Now he’s at the Final Four. That’s remarkable,” said Malik Ondigo, a sophomore forward for Tech.
Virginia carried deep scars for a whole year after one embarrassing moment. The Cavaliers have been reminded daily about March 2018 and how they became the first No. 1 seed (first overall, no less) to be eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by a No. 16 seed (UMBC). Some of the reminders were less than gentle.
“Sometimes people don’t remember that they’re dealing with 19- and 20-year-olds,” said Kyle Guy, who made three free throws with six-tenths of a second left against Auburn on Saturday to turn a two-point deficit into a one-point win.
His coach, Tony Bennett, said of the sting from last year, “In a way, it’s a painful gift. It did draw us nearer to each other as a team. I think it helped us as coaches. I think it helped the players on the court and helped us in other areas.”
Anyone who followed college basketball got caught up in Virginia’s rebound this season, marked by last-gasp victories in the Elite Eight and Final Four. “From the heartbreak of last year to be playing in the national championship Monday night, it’s a story you pull for,” Beard said.
But his team’s story is one for the books, too. Inspirational books. The roster is not filled with former top 100 recruits and Texas Tech does not have the same recognition factor as Duke, North Carolina or Kentucky.
“When I visited, I just fell in love with the culture, and the community was great. I just saw the work ethic of all the guys,” said Mooney, a graduate transfer from South Dakota (after starting at Air Force) who scored a career-high 22 points in the semifinal win over Michigan State.
Beard recalled a November game in which Owens barely played yet was exuberant afterward, celebrating for his teammates. “I told [assistant coach] Mark Adams right there, this team has got a chance. This unselfishness is not fluff, this is for real,” Beard said on Sunday.
The talents of Williamson and his fellow high-caliber freshmen also were real. The Duke frontcourt star animated the entire season. Williamson did appear at the Final Four, but only to receive two player of the year awards, not to play.
“Yeah, I am a competitor. I wish I was here under different circumstances,” he said, “but I mean, you win some, you lose some, so you’ve just got to move on.”
It remains to be seen if all of NCAA basketball will look more like this championship game in the future once, as expected, the NBA again allows players to turn pro right out of high school. For now, the 2018-19 season ranks as a triumph for process and patience. “I think it’s a testament to both programs that they take their time in developing. They’re not afraid to go against the trend of one-and-dones,” Guy said. “I think both teams have the sense of ‘it’s not about you, it’s about everyone.’ I think that’s great for the sport, great for future stars of the game.”