By John Fanta
MINNEAPOLIS — Never has Texas Tech nor Virginia been the team on the stage watching “One Shining Moment.” That will change Monday night.
They’ve had opposite paths, with the Red Raiders mostly in command on their march to the title game, owning an average margin of victory of 14. Last Saturday’s West Regional Final against Gonzaga was their smallest margin, being six. Meanwhile, Virginia’s last three games combined have been decided by a total of 10 points.
There was already a feeling of destiny with the Cavaliers after the way they won the South Regional title, forcing overtime on Mamadi Diakite’s shot and then edging Purdue. Combine that with a shocking end to Saturday’s Final Four affair with Auburn, with Kyle Guy getting fouled before the buzzer and hitting the game-winning free throws, and the Hoos have had magic on their side. Their stifling pack line defense keeps them right in a game, but the lack of any tempo sees them in many close situations. They’ve found a way in each of those, and if it’s tight Monday, the Cavaliers do have more experience in that spot.
Here are three things to watch for in the title tilt:
Two NBA Draft Lottery Picks: The idea that this match-up doesn’t feature big-name players is silly. Zion Williamson led all attention this season, and rightly so, but there’s two players in this national title showdown that you’ll be watching in The Association next season. According to NBADraft.net, Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver is projected to go sixth with Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter in the eighth slot. Culver, a Lubbock native, fittingly closed Saturday night for the Red Raiders with seven points in the final two and a half minutes in the win. Hunter took over a period of the second half, scoring 10 points on a perfect 5-for-5 from the field in the 63-62 win. These are two talents with great length and an ability to take over when attacking the rim. Culver’s aggressiveness is always there, but a big key for UVA is getting Hunter revved up. At times, they don’t go to him enough. They need to let the big dog eat.
Three-point shooting: In a game that’s so defensively oriented, the three-point line could once again tell the story. Texas Tech’s priority will be stopping Ty Jerome, who had 21 points including four triples to go with nine rebounds and six assists Saturday night. The Red Raiders have been so successful at taking away their opponent’s go-to weapon offensively, that it’s nothing Chris Beard’s team can’t handle. But, Jerome can get hot quickly. The Red Raiders counter with Matt Mooney, who tied his season-high with 22 points on Saturday. Both Mooney and Jerome shot 8-for-16 in the Final Four wins. It may sound cliche, but the team that finds a hot hand from deep is going to win this game. These are the top two candidates.
Free Throw Shooting: Look, the Red Raiders did not record a fast break point in their Final Four win over Michigan State. Virginia had just four against Auburn, and that’s only because the Tigers will give you a runout every now and then. We could spend all day breaking down halfcourt execution, but until Guy hit the three game-winning free throws Saturday night, UVA was 3-for-9 from the charity stripe. Texas Tech shot 62 percent in its win over Michigan State at 8-for-13. In a “first to 50” game, every trip to the line counts.
PREDICTION: It’s getting underappreciated just how much Texas Tech has controlled its path in this tournament, and the Red Raiders will be unfazed by facing a great defensive team in Virginia. The pack line may be a different monster, but nothing tells me that Texas Tech will be overwhelmed in any way by it. Tariq Owens’ (ankle) status is key for the Red Raiders inside, but I think the magic runs out for Virginia in this one. It may feel like destiny for the Hoos, but they’re running into a buzzsaw. Virginia hangs around, but Jarrett Culver makes the key plays late and Tech contains Ty Jerome.
Texas Tech 65, Virginia 58
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