National championship game preview: Texas Tech vs. Virginia — which team has the edge?
MINNEAPOLIS — It all comes down to this: Virginia vs. Texas Tech for the national championship Monday night.
The Cavaliers, the lone No. 1 seed left, won a second consecutive nail-biter by escaping Auburn 63-62 Saturday off Kyle Guy’s three game-winning free throws with 0.6 seconds left. It came a week after UVA clipped Purdue in overtime in the Elite Eight thanks to Mamadi Diakite’s game-tying buzzer-beater.
The Red Raiders, meanwhile, stifled a favored Michigan State team, 61-51 in their Final Four clash. That came after the Spartans had ousted the tournament’s top overall seed in Duke last weekend. But just like in a win over Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, Texas Tech's defense was too much and its offense just enough.
Expect Monday’s title game to be a defensive battle of epic proportions. Virginia and Texas Tech pride themselves on smothering opponents. Saturday marked the first time since the shot clock started in 1986 that any of the four national semifinal teams failed to reach 65 points, according to CBS.
Breaking down the final:
How the Cavaliers can win: Virginia’s nation-leading pack-line defense (limiting opponents to 55 points a game) is contingent upon keeping other teams out of the paint and offsetting tempo. But now it meets a team in Texas Tech that’s unlike the ACC teams it regularly slowed down. TTU presents an offense that scores more in spurts — so discipline will be even more important. Coach Tony Bennett felt his team made mistakes on defense against Auburn, and hinted that dictating offensive pace will be a difference-maker.
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One key for the Cavs will be avoiding turnovers and playing smart against a defense that rivals its own. That starts with point guards Ty Jerome and Kihei Clark. Another will be getting offense from its top guys — Jerome, Guy and De’Andre Hunter. The reason UVA was even positioned to win at the last second against Auburn was those three combined for 50 points. Virginia’s role players will have to step up, too. Diakite (two points) was quiet on Saturday and an ineffective Jack Salt was an offensive no-show who dealt with foul trouble.
How the Red Raiders can win: Coach Chris Beard’s team leads the nation in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and has put together one of the most impressive defensive showings in NCAA tournament history. Texas Tech does more than turn the ball over and take teams out of offensive rhythm. The Red Raiders make it hard to breathe with their length and ball pressure to the point where it clearly affects an opponent’s psyche as it did with Michigan State and its floor general, Cassius Winston.
The instant offense of TTU’s NBA talent, Jarrett Culver, will also be critical; Culver only had 10 points in the win vs. MSU, but his decisive 3-pointer with 58 seconds left effectively sealed the game. If he can find an offensive rhythm, and marksman Davide Moretti can make outside shots, that could be enough offense for the Red Raiders to “upset” Virginia.
Key player for UVA: Ty Jerome. While Guy was the hero vs. Auburn for his last-second free throws and clutch 3-point shooting, Jerome was once again the overshadowed star — finishing with 21 points, nine rebounds and six assists. His running jump shot with 6:46 remaining and a 3-pointer with 5:24 left were momentum-shifters. And it’s hard to forget the impact of Jerome’s performance against Purdue — 24 points, seven assists. Jerome has a clutch gene that could decide the game against the Red Raiders, and how he runs the team will be vital. Maybe it is not a coincidence that when he went to the bench after his fourth foul with 4:32 remaining, Auburn started its comeback from a nine-point deficit.
Key player for TTU: Matt Mooney. While Culver, Big 12 player of the year, has drawn most of Texas Tech’s headlines and Moretti has been a big-time shot-maker, Mooney’s been steady running the point all season. The 23-year-old grad transfer from South Dakota stepped up on the big stage Saturday, matching his season-high with 22 points. His three 3-pointers over a span of three minutes helped the Red Raiders build a 13-point lead midway through the second half. He’s important against Virginia because he can break out offensively when necessary and his veteran poise helps this team not look rattled when other teams start turning the game’s momentum.
The pick: Virginia. Defense will be the main theme. But what has gotten the Cavaliers to this position is not on the stat sheet. The program has fed off the heartbreak of last year’s UMBC loss. While Virginia’s last two wins have come at the last second and in overtime, the players believe their fortune will be determined by something outside the lines.
“Maybe it’s a fate, maybe it’s destiny,” Jerome said. “That loss we had last year (to UMBC) took us to a place we’ve never been before. We were in the gym every day. If you were with us, you wouldn’t believe it.”
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