MINNEAPOLIS — Matt Mooney had just finished off the best — and biggest — game of his career, quite possibly his life.
The South Dakota grad transfer scored 13 of his 22 points in the second half, including a trio of triples to cap a 14-4 Texas Tech run that blew a tight game wide open as Texas Tech advanced to Monday’s national title game with a 61-51 win over Michigan State.
There he sat, a year removed from talking to USD’s one and only beat writer after a game, a gaggle of media shoving phones in his face as myriad cameras recorded his every facial tick, getting told that his coaching staff couldn’t care less about all those points.
“We don’t need to talk about that.”
That’s what Mark Adams, a Texas Tech assistant and the architect responsible for the vaunted Red Raider defense, said when asked about Mooney’s breakout performance in Saturday’s second national semifinal game. He wasn’t joking, either. Those 22 points didn’t matter, not to win anyway. He cared about the 4-for-16 performance posted by Cassius Winston, Michigan State’s All-American point guard and the Peyton Manning of Michigan State’s offense.
“I reeled him back in,” Adams joked. “‘It’s not the offensive end we’re worried about, Matt. Don’t get it lopsided, now.’ He did an exceptional job on Cassius.”
That defensive performance, one that limited Winston to 16 points and just two assists to go long with his four turnovers, is what allowed the Red Raiders to survive what was a decidedly disastrous evening from Jarrett Culver, the star of this Texas Tech team, the resident soon-to-be lottery pick and NBC Sports first-team All-American.
It was the worst possible time for Culver to have his one of his worst games of the season. He finished with 10 points, three fouls and two assists to three turnovers while shooting 3-for-12 from the floor, struggling all night long to find a way to get around, through or over Michigan State’s Matt McQuaid.
And it could not have mattered less.
Frankly, it was a fitting finish to a Final Four Saturday that saw four teams fail to crack 63 points. Three of the nation’s top ten defensive teams were on display in US Bank Stadium, and it showed. But as much as Culver struggled on Saturday, he made the plays when it really mattered. Everyone seated in US Bank Stadium knew Michigan State wasn’t going to go away quietly. They used a 13-2 run over the course of seven minutes, to cut Texas Tech’s lead to 52-51, and it was Culver had the answer. A driving layup with 2:29 left push Tech’s lead to three. After hitting one of two free throws with 1:32 left on the clock, the 6-foot-6 Lubbock native drilled a step-back three with 58 seconds left, the dagger Deep In The Heart Of Michigan State that sent Chris Beard and company within one win of a national title.
Culver was the hero, because that’s what All-Americans do.
They win you games even when they’re struggling.
But Mooney was the best player on the floor for the Red Raiders, on both ends of the court.
It wasn’t always a given that that would be the case.
Because Mooney, for all he could do on the offensive side of the floor, was just not a good defender when he arrived in Lubbock after three seasons in Vermillion.
“He never really had been asked to play defense,” Max Leferve, another Tech assistant coach, said.
The problem, you see, was that Mooney refused to use his wingspan. He stands about 6-foot-3 on a good day, but the Wauconda, Ill., native has a that would make Jay Bilas salivate; a very nice 6-foot-9. But Mooney refused to raise his arms. As Adams put it, he played like he was wrapped in athletic tape. Another player said Mooney might as well have played defense with his hands in his pockets. It was a constant source of frustration for the coaching staff, particularly Adams.
“He would blow the whistle, stop practice and say, ‘Hey, how long is Mooney’s wingspan?'” Mooney recalled. “‘Well, he’s playing like he’s got a five-foot wingspan. It took quite some time [to break the habit]. Probably until halfway through the year.”
“I got tired of getting cussed out.”
In what I’m sure Mooney hopes won’t be his One Shining Moment, that wingspan was on full display.
It came with 9:40 left on the clock, after Mooney had scored his 20th point of the night and buried a third three in a two-minute, 35-second span. As he ran back down the floor, he had his arms spread wide, basking in a moment he may never again get to experience.
But that was the peak of Tech’s celebrating on Saturday night.
The job isn’t done yet.
“We came here to play 80 minutes,” Chris Beard said. “There’s the first 40.”