MINNEAPOLIS — Nearly 45 minutes after the final horn had sounded, Brandone Francis sauntered across the Texas Tech locker room, plopped onto the carpet and clasped hands with teammates Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens, who were seated in front of their stalls.
Shaking his head, Francis uttered the thought that will likely haunt Red Raiders fans forever following Monday’s 85-77 overtime loss to Virginia in the NCAA title game.
“We had it, man,” Francis said softly. “We had it.”
Texas Tech certainly did.
Or at least it appeared that way after a pair of free throws by Norense Odiase gave the Red Raiders a 68-65 lead with 22 seconds remaining. But a defensive lapse moments later resulted in a three-pointer by Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter that forced overtime, and Texas Tech crumbled down the stretch in the extra period.
“Always, my whole life, I wanted to be that one team that ends its season with a win,” Red Raiders Coach Chris Beard said. “We were so close tonight. The difference between winning and losing is so small, from being national champions to sitting here with the pain of my life.
“There was a lot of emotion in that locker room. It was raw.”
In one of the greatest NCAA title bouts in recent memory — and the first to go to overtime since Kansas-Memphis in 2008 — it was impossible not to respect and admire both teams. As easy as it was to be happy for Virginia as the Cavaliers celebrated amid the silver and yellow streamers that rained from the rafters at U.S. Bank Stadium, it was tough not to feel for Texas Tech.
Tears dripped down the cheeks of point guard Davide Moretti as he made his way up the tunnel. Once out of the eyesight of fans, Owens stopped in his tracks, screamed an expletive and nearly pushed over a table and water cooler. He was restrained by an assistant. Then there was Francis, who shooed away a photographer before falling to the arms of Beard on the court.
“I’m sorry, coach!” he said. “I’m sorry!”
Moments later, Francis pulled his jersey over his face and began to sob.
“We didn’t get to this point to come in second,” Francis would say later. “No one remembers second place.”
Texas Tech may be exception.
Picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, the Red Raiders were a team of vagabonds and unheralded prospects. Three of their starters (Mooney, Owens and Francis) are transfers while the others (Morretti and Jarrett Culver) weren’t even top 100 recruits. All of them were led by an unlikely hero in Beard, who had coached everything from junior college to the G-League to the ABA before arriving at Texas Tech three seasons ago.
The Associated Press National Coach of the Year, Beard guided the Red Raiders to their first-ever Elite Eight last season before ending Kansas’ run in 14 straight Big 12 titles this spring. They reached Monday’s title game by defeating No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Michigan State.
“They way they competed — the grit, the determination — that’s the fabric of West Texas,” Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt said. “The exposure this brought to our entire brand, the notoriety … it’s going to continue to open doors for years to come.”
Texas Tech finally met its match against Virginia, who only one year ago became the first No. 1 seed in history to lose to a No. 16 seed. The Cavaliers appeared all but defeated against Purdue in the Elite Eight and then against Auburn in the Final Four before eking out victories with late-game heroics.
Monday’s championship contest unfolded in similar fashion.
Virginia appeared to have the game all but sealed when a layup by Hunter gave the Cavaliers a 59-51 cushion with 5:46 remaining. But Texas Tech proved resilient, battling back to take a 66-65 lead on a basket by Culver with 35 seconds left.
Virginia’s Ty Jerome missed a jump shot on the other end, and Odiase was fouled after snaring the rebound. His free throws gave the Red Raiders a 68-65 lead. Only 22 seconds stood between Texas Tech and the national title.
“I just thought to myself, ‘One more stop and we’ve got the game,’” Odiase said.
As Virginia inbounded the ball, Beard stood on the sideline and screamed, “No 3s! No 3s!” But the Cavaliers managed to uncork one anyway.
Instead of staying glued to Hunter — his defensive assignment and Virginia’s top player — Culver dipped into the lane to try to stop a layup by Jerome, who had zipped into the paint. That left Hunter wide open in the corner. Jerome fired a perfect pass and Hunter capitalized with a game-tying 3 at the 14-second mark.
“We could’ve gave up a 2 when he drove to the basket,” Odiase said. “He had a wide open layup and I thought we were going to concede that. But I guess something happened and he kicked it out for a 3. The game turned right there.”
It was a rare lapse from a team whose defense is regarded as the best in the country. Culver admitted after the game that he “over-helped.”
“We work every day in practice on special situations,” Beard said. “Coming down the court, our objective is to not give up a three-point shot and not foul on a two (point shot). We just didn’t get it done. But give Virginia credit. It’s not always about someone not getting it done. It’s about the other team getting it done. They got it done against Purdue — somehow, some way. They got it done against Auburn — somehow, some way. And tonight they got it done against us.”
Culver, a projected lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft, had a chance to redeem himself on Texas Tech’s ensuing possession. But rather than penetrating into the paint for a potential game-winning shot and possibly drawing a foul, Culver attempted an ill-advised three-pointer from the left wing.
“I had a mindset to try to get downhill and create,” Culver said. “But I saw a (defensive) switch and I felt like I had an open shot, so I shot it.”
The attempt clanked off the rim, the cherry on top of a maddening night for Culver, who went 5-of-22 from the field and 0-of-6 from beyond the arc.
“I’m not going to doubt Jarrett Culver, who might be the greatest player to ever play at our school,” Beard said.
Texas Tech still felt as if it had the advantage entering the extra period, especially after Mooney opened the scoring with a three-pointer. But Virginia ran away with it after Hunter’s three at the 2:09 mark gave the Cavaliers a 75-73 lead and a momentum they would never relinquish.
“Every time I thought we had it, they hit a shot or made a play,” Mooney said. “It was a battle, man. We threw a punch and then they’d throw a punch. They came right back at us every time. We were resilient all year, but we couldn’t finish this one off.”
In his postgame press conference, Beard heaped praise on Virginia and Head Coach Tony Bennett, who won his first national championship in what was his first Final Four appearance.
“Give Virginia credit,” Beard said. “People keep talking about them being a team of destiny, but they’re just really good. I’ve got a lot of respect for them.”
Texas Tech earned respect, too — not just from its opponent, but from anyone who doubted the Red Raiders this season or watched them during the tournament. Beard even joked with a reporter who penned a column Sunday suggesting the title game between two “defensive teams” would be low-scoring and difficult to watch.
“Are you the one who said this was going to be a bad game?” Beard quipped. “That was a great game!”
And a great season.
The Red Raiders seemed to realize as much as they prepared to leave the locker room just before midnight. Francis, who had been so down just minutes earlier, even managed to smile a bit as he rose from the floor after his pow-wow with Mooney and Owens.
“We were right there,” he said again. “That tape is going to be so tough to watch.”
Owens extended his hand and dapped up his teammate.
“It was a hell of a ride,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”