Texas Tech's Dominant Defense Aces Toughest Test Yet to Seal Final Four BidMarch 31, 2019
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Tariq Owens wouldn't allow Gonzaga players any daylight. Nope. Not for a second. All night he was smothering shots and altering shots, frustrating and chasing anyone who had the audacity to come into the paint. His paint.
So when Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura decided to pull the trigger on a corner three in Owens' face with just over three minutes to go, Owens did what he so often does; he smacked the ball down. The senior jumped and screamed and celebrated his pivotal block all the way to half court.
"As soon as I seen him catch it, I left my feet," Owens said. "Sometimes it doesn't work out, but, you know, I had to because I had to get there."
That type of urgency allowed Texas Tech, the nation's best defensive team, to edge Gonzaga, the nation's best offensive team, 75-69.
The Red Raiders will head to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
"We kept working at it and working at it, and we got a program where everybody was grinders, especially our head coach [Chris Beard], who believed in us and was willing to push us and push us to the next level that we knew we had," Owens said.
The two teams went back and forth, and back and forth, but a clutch three-pointer and free throws by Davide Moretti halted a late Bulldogs surge led by Josh Perkins. The senior point guard hit a deep three with 22 seconds remaining but committed a technical foul that ultimately sealed the deal for Texas Tech.
Everyone knew coming into this game how formidable Texas Tech was defensively, but it's one thing to watch a team defend on film and another thing to experience the pressure up close. To feel how relentless, how passionate, how fundamentally sound and skilled it is for 40 minutes straight.
Texas Tech made Gonzaga earn every look. That's why the Red Raiders defense is so disruptive: They will not allow you to go where you want to go, to do what you want to do. There is no letting up. There are no easy drop steps, no easy putbacks. When they're guarding the ball, their feet are always moving, which the team calls "pulsing."
Gonzaga committed 16 turnovers and scored well under its season average of 88.2 points per game. It was just the fourth time in 37 games the Bulldogs were held below 70 points this season.
"They are really good at reaching, poking and digging things outta there," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "That defense is real, and Chris has done a great job with it, and it definitely impacted us tonight. They took a lot of balls from us when we had the ball in a great position for us where I'm feeling, 'Yes!' And then we just lost it. It's tough. It's real."
Texas Tech guard Matt Mooney did a superb job of containing Perkins. Owens and Norense Odiase seemed to be everywhere inside, effectively pulling the Bulldogs' Brandon Clarke out of his comfort zone. They forced Clarke to put the ball on the floor. It seemed like wherever he chose to go, he ran into two or three red jerseys, outstretched arms and whip-quick hands nipping at his waist. When he caught the ball? Red. Spun baseline? Red. Spun middle? Red.
Clarke, one of the nation's best defensive players and shot-blockers himself, still managed 18 points and 12 boards but looked out of rhythm offensively when he wasn't able to get easy buckets in transition or baskets off of putbacks.
He committed six turnovers, five in the first half alone (two of them because of traveling).
"Something I've never done," Clarke said of his turnover total. "I think five is my season high, if not my career high, so props to them, really.
"They forced us to make passes or plays we probably shouldn't have made," Clarke said. "But I still feel like it just came down to us missing some shots and them hitting some big shots."
Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver was named the West Region's Most Outstanding Player. The likely NBA lottery pick finished with 19 points but shot a poor 5-of-19 from the field. He never seemed to sway out of the offense though, trusting his teammates, like Mooney, to deliver. Mooney finished with 17, while Moretti chipped in with 12.
Hachimura, who had 22 points, kept Gonzaga close all night, muscling his way into the paint, trying to get to the charity stripe. He seemed like the only Bulldogs player unfazed by the contact, willing himself farther inside no matter the double-teams that greeted him once he beat his first defender.
As for the Red Raiders, with their 30th victory of the season, they tied a program record for wins.
Their battles against top offensive teams are far from over. Both potential future opponents Michigan State and Duke rank high in terms of offensive efficiency (MSU at No. 4 and Duke at No. 7).
Though it has always emphasized defense, Texas Tech will have to continue to make big plays on the other end of the floor in Minneapolis. The team proved tonight, as it has all year, that it has enough players not named Culver willing to take big shots toward the end of regulation.
"It's cliche, but hard work pays off," Mooney said. "For believers, you reap when you sow. They didn't pick us to win the [Big] 12 or to be here right now, but we keep believing in each other, and we're going to keep doing it."
Mirin Fader is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and SLAM. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.