By John Fanta


MINNEAPOLIS — With two and a half minutes on the clock, not one of the 72,711 fans inside US Bank Stadium was sitting down. A green wave was in a frenzy. Michigan State had turned a 13-point hole into just a one-point deficit in just seven minutes. Spartan fans were used to the Final Four stage, their eighth appearance in 20 years.

Yet on this night, the noise, and the game belonged to the fans streaked in red and black. Fittingly, one of their own was the closer. Not just a Red Raider, but one of Lubbock’s own.

Jarrett Culver wasn’t having his best night, but the hometown kid and NBA Draft prospect was the closer. The sophomore scored six unanswered to extend Texas Tech’s lead to seven and put the game away, a 61-51 win over Michigan State.

The victory clinched the Red Raiders’ first national championship game berth, and guarantees a first-time champion when Texas Tech meets Virginia Monday night at 9 PM ET.

“Right now, it doesn’t even feel real,” said Culver, whose Red Raiders were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12. “It feels like we’re all dreaming, but we know we got one more game. 40 more minutes. We came here to play 80, not 40.”

The Red Raiders took down the Big 10 champions by out-matching them defensively, just as they’ve done throughout the five tournament wins. That defense, ranked third in America allowing just 59 points per game, faces a UVA “D” that’s first in the nation at just 55.4 points per game.

This Hollywood script for the Red Raiders goes beyond a hometown hero in Culver. The Final Four always brings out the best in someone, and Saturday night belonged to Texas Tech senior Matt Mooney. With Culver just in single-digits, it magnified Mooney, who had 22 points including four triples.

Mooney’s incredible performance is even more special when you consider his journey. A year ago, he was at South Dakota after starting his college career at Air Force.

“ I can’t explain it, man. It’s been a heck of a journey,” said Mooney. “A lot of people have helped me get to this point, have helped me along the way. You know, this is — I’m living the dream right now. I’m so grateful I got another opportunity. I’m so grateful for this coaching staff believing in me.”

The belief within the program, and beyond it from the Lubbock faithful who showed by the tens of thousands, is telling. It starts at the top with Chris Beard, who’s now 9-2 in the NCAA Tournament. He kept it simple when looking at his program.

“Why not us? We’ve got good players. We’ve got a great university. We play in arguably the best league in the country. We won the Big 12 regular season title. We’re a good team. We’ve got good players.Yeah, I think we deserve to be here, as do a lot of other teams. You’ve got to get fortunate, but we did. I’m looking forward to coaching these guys on Monday night.”

That surreal feeling, one that feels like a dream for the players, doesn’t seem all that surreal for Beard. His team echoes it on the floor, and that’s why the Red Raiders are 40 minutes away from scheduling a parade…in Lubbock.

PHOTO: Pioneer Press