MINNEAPOLIS — Boy, do the basketball gods have a tough choice now.
So who’s it going to be Monday night? Which fairy tale?
They have Virginia, whose script has apparently been turned over to a magician or a wizard or a miracle cure salesman or somebody. How else to explain a team that has been behind by two points in the last second of regulation the past two games, and won both? Great Escape I and Great Escape II.
The Cavaliers might just as well take the court with the word Destiny across the front.
“I don’t know what’s destined,” said Mamadi Diakite, after the victory over Auburn dropped from U.S. Bank Stadium roof. “We somehow ended up winning every crazy game like that.”
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But then again, they have Texas Tech. Picked to finish seventh in its league. No previous Final Four in its history, but playing with the mantra coach Chris Beard mentioned Saturday night, “Why not us? We’ve got good players.”
Here’s all they had to overcome Saturday night to take down Michigan State. Big 12 player of the year Jarrett Culver went 3-for-12. Second leading scorer Davide Moretti scored five points. Starting center Norense Odiase had two. Starting forward Tariq Owens hurt his knee in the second half and played only six minutes after halftime.
Oh, well. Just keep working on defense, and let Matt Mooney — the kid who used to play at South Dakota — do the shooting, and in the really tough late minutes, take on a Spartans team renowned for its steel and outscore it 9-0 the last 2:29 to win by 10. Next?
“Just be able to play through what we have,” Owens explained. “Playing through foul trouble, playing through adversity, just sticking through and coming up with a W.
“This win just speaks wonders to our program.”
You would think Virginia’s last two victories, delivered by Last Hope Fed-Ex, would convince everyone the Cavaliers are not about to be denied.
Not when a kid can stand at the free throw line with a gazillion people watching, needing to make two to save his team and three to win, and bury all of them, as if he was out in the driveway on a Sunday afternoon. “I was terrified,” Kyle Guy would say later. “But I had confidence in myself.”
His coach Tony Bennett would call it, “Terrific. Sorry, that isn’t a strong enough word. Amazing, spectacular, I don’t have many more.”
So Guy was fouled shooting from the deep left corner. And that’s not to mention the 3-pointer he made from the right corner with seven seconds left, to get Virginia close. Meaning Kyle Guy scored 15 points Saturday night, and six of them came in the last seven seconds. By the way, before he hit three free throws, the Cavaliers were 3-for-9 from the line, which would have been an excellent starting point for explaining why they lost.
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Put all that together, and who would bet a bottle cap against Virginia right now?
Plus, there’s the Redemption Road thing they have going, shedding the last layers of the UMBC defeat as they move along. No Virginia press conference is official this month without that subject. So it was, Saturday night.
"It's just good, that is all I can say and I am so thankful. Whether it happened or not, I would be so thankful for what they have done for this program and our bond through it all." - Tony Bennett 🔶⚔️🔷 #GoHoos #FinalFour pic.twitter.com/C9F4JohwIn— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) April 7, 2019
“I feel like I get asked this question every single round, every round we advance, and I say the same thing almost, and it feels a little bit sweeter, a little bit sweeter,” Ty Jerome said. “We’re going to do everything we can to finish the job.”
Guy chipped in, “Not much to add. Just you guys can ask that question again on Monday.”
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That would be a rare kind of happy ending even the opposing coach Monday night can appreciate. “It’s a story that you pull for,” Beard said.
But then again, what hardy soul wants to pick against Texas Tech at this point? The Red Raiders act as if they’re on a magic carpet ride, and they are.
So it’s going to be a title game of dueling karmas. But, of course, there’s more to the outrageously good fortunes both teams are currently riding.
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Note in the Purdue and Auburn games, how well Virginia had to execute to pull two rabbits out of the hat. “We actually practice late-game situations pretty often,’ Jerome said. “We’ll make our two teams and say, all right, this team is down six with the ball with 1:30 left.
“That 3 Kyle hit was off a play that Coach put in. Everyone did their job screening and Kyle hit a super tough shot. The same on the side out-of-bounds play (to Guy for the foul). It’s a play we put in and practiced it multiple times. It wasn’t just luck.”
But down six with 1:30 left? That’s chocolate cake compared to what the Cavaliers have faced the past two games.
“We definitely take pride in trying to over-prepare,” Guy said. “We have a poster in our practice gym, in our weight room that says Success Happens when Preparation Meets Opportunity.”
Same for the other side. While Texas Tech is certainly a charming saga, there’s nothing gentle about the way the Red Raiders play. “Grind it out, grind it out, grind it out,” Odiase said. And be nearly impossible sometimes to score against. Michigan State shot 32 percent, and Cassius Winston was 4-for-16. The Spartans’ total of 51 was 11 points under their previous low for this season.
“Very seldom in my career have we kind of got beat up,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said. “And tonight was one of those nights.”
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Mooney, who had 22 points Saturday to go with 24 by the rest of the starting lineup, mentioned a story about Beard from the pre-season.
“He said, `We have enough in this gym, in this locker room right here, to play on the final Monday night. And either Coach is psychic — he might be psychic because here we are on the final Monday night. We just believed him, and believed in each other all year long.”
So in the end, there are two teams who have never won a national championship, and we haven’t seen that in a title game in 29 years, since Duke and UNLV in 1990. It’s the first time since the landmark Magic Johnson-Larry Bird, Michigan State-Indiana State match-up in 1979 that both schools are in their first championship game. Two teams who have every reason to think it’s their time at last, with the recent performance to back to up.
Time for the gods to make up their minds. Won’t be easy.