MINNEAPOLIS — When Texas Tech rim protector Tariq Owens left the national semifinal against Michigan State with 14:43 remaining, Matt Mooney energized the team to start a run that led the Red Raiders to their first national championship game.
Michigan State forward Nick Ward drove to the basket looking to cut the Spartan deficit to one when he missed. Owens and freshman guard Kyler Edwards both went up for the rebound. Edwards came down with the ball and Owens went down with an injury. Play was stopped as trainers rushed to Owens and players went to the bench.
Mooney proved to be the next man up. “Matt (Mooney) stood up and told us that we were gonna do it for Tariq,” said Edwards “He delivered. We didn’t know if ‘Riq would come back.”
Mooney made eight of 16 shots, including four of eight from 3-point range. His 22 points matched his season high set Jan. 12 against Texas. It was the 23rd time Mooney scored in double digits this season.
Mooney was recruited by Texas Tech coach Chris Beard to provide veteran leadership. It's a role Mooney embraces. Mooney understands the importance having upperclassmen on a team. “I think the value in having older guys is having guys that have done it and been through it before, the heartbreak,” he said.
Mooney provided that value in avoiding heartbreak for the Raiders when Owens went to the locker room.
Mooney frustrated the Michigan State defense and scored 11 of his game-high 22 points in the span of 6:36 that Owens was away from the floor and the Red Raider bench. “They just came out with more energy,” said Michigan State’s Aaron Henry. “You have to give them credit. They faced adversity and overcame it, that’s what good teams do.”
For Mooney, it was a spiritual moment for him on the floor. “I’ve seen this verse…Joshua 1:9…’Have I not commanded you to be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged.’ I felt that verse tonight.”
Brandone Francis helped get Mooney’s run started after Owens’ injury. His two assists came on 3-pointers made by Mooney. “I have to get the energy going,” said Francis. He entered the game as Owens went to the locker room. “I found Matt a couple of times,” he said. “Matt hit some crazy shots. The crowd got going and we got going.”
Mooney’s eight 3-point attempts equaled the third highest in school NCAA tournament history with Devaugntah Williams (March 17, 2016, vs. Butler), Cory Carr (March 21, 1996, vs. Georgetown) and Koy Smith (March 18, 1993, vs. St. John’s). It was also his sixth time hitting three or more 3-pointers this season.
When Mooney starts hitting shots, his team knows what to do. “When he gets in that zone it’s hard to stop him,” said sophomore guard Jarrett Culver. “He puts in the work every day. He earned it.”
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Owens returned to the bench with 8:07 left and re-entered the game with 6:52 remaining. “The crowd got so loud,” said Culver. “I had no idea what was going on and then ‘Riq is back.”
For Francis, the time without Owens was all about returning the favor. “He’s always in the paint on defense,” he said. “He gets blocks and has our back. We wanted to show him that this time we have his back.”
Mike Williams is a student in the M.A. program in Sports Journalism at IUPUI and part of the Sports Capital Journalism Program.