By Zach Griffith | @ZachGriffith17
Sports Capital Journalism Program
MINNEAPOLIS – They were less than 20 seconds away from having done it. Chris Beard was about to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, Bob Knight, to become a championship coach. The Texas Tech Red Raiders were poised to assume kingship over the entire college basketball realm.
And then, with a splash of the net from the right corner, Tech’s title hopes were snatched away by the Cavaliers of Virginia.
Even though the Red Raiders had an extra five minutes to climb back up the mountain, the summit just kept slipping farther away. Eventually, it became unreachable, and then it was gone. The horn sounded, confetti blasted down onto the hardwood, and Texas Tech’s 85-77 overtime loss became a depressing end to its most inspiring season. The sleek new court of U.S. Bank Stadium was split into polar opposite emotions. Jubilation and redemption on one side, heartbreak and devastation on the other.
Walking into the Texas Tech locker room was like entering a funeral parlor. Silence engulfed the room as crimson-clad giants stared down in disbelief at the floor, their eyes glossed over in shock. A couple were swarmed by reporters, others were left to cope with the loss by themselves. A young student journalist cautiously approached one of the fallen, having no way to comprehend the thoughts going through his mind.
“I feel a lot of hurt, a lot of pain,” said sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, whose 5-for-22 night came to symbolize Texas Tech’s frustration. “We fought until the end, though, tried to give ourselves a chance to win.”
What we all can comprehend, though, is that this team is far from done. This team is not a one-hit wonder. The Red Raiders have been built to have more rodeos in multiple editions of March Madness to come.
“I mean, we’ll be back,” said senior forward Tariq Owens. “That’s all I got to say.”
With a leader like Beard, who was on the brink of tears after the second-place finish, Texas Tech expects to become a force in the Big 12 conference capable of challenging blue-blood rival Kansas each year. It’s easy to forget that Beard guided the Red Raiders to the Elite Eight last season, where they fell to Villanova, the eventual national champs.
In the college game, two things are crucial to a program maintaining extended relevancy. One: a proven, influential coach. Two: a reliable defensive strategy that will pay off more than it doesn’t. Tech boasts both qualities. Assuming the school is able to keep Beard (and there’s no reason to think that it can’t), the Red Raiders can become a mainstay in March for a long time.
Beard’s genuine feelings for his team and the game of basketball were evident throughout Final Four weekend. His respect for Michigan State Tom Izzo, his love for his players and coaches, and his relatable personality made Texas Tech easy to root for.
“A lot of emotion in our locker room right now,” said Beard after the loss. “It’s real, just guys that care about the guy next to them. But this is life. We’ll bounce back. In terms of Texas Tech basketball, we’re not going anywhere. We’ll be back in this tournament sooner rather than later, and we intend to be a part of college basketball as we build the program.”
And if you thought that Tech’s journey had just reached its apex, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that to Beard, whose impact on his players will go far beyond the arena of 3-pointers and help defense.
“You know, our relationship is just getting started. I’ll be at those guys’ weddings one day and hopefully, when their kids are born and do everything, I can talk them out of coaching so they don’t ever feel like this. You know, I just love those guys.”
At the end of the greatest season in the program’s history, the Red Raiders will move on from this crushing blow and make the most of it. Seeing their opponents bombarded by celebration and cheers and streamers will make them that much more focused. The sheer determination that resonates from Beard will be more than enough to eventually get them to the top.
“College basketball is the best education I think you can get,” Beard said. “It teaches you how to get along with people and how to work for a goal and how to handle success and how to handle really, really tough times like we’re experiencing now…When you heard about the mental toughness part about our program, it’s real. We believe in it…I just told the guys, it’s pretty simple. I love you, man, thank you, and our relationship’s just getting started.”