ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Culver family sat together in the front row at the Honda Center, opposite the Texas Tech bench. They wore No. 23 jerseys, with their last name stitched across the backs, and they shared hugs and posted snapshots and wiped at the tears rolling down their cheeks.
When the final horn sounded, after Texas Tech topped Gonzaga, 75–69, what once seemed improbable had morphed into a glorious reality. The boy from Lubbock, their own Jarrett Culver, and the basketball team from Lubbock were headed to the Final Four for the first time in school history. And that owed to a sequence of events that might sound like fiction. Except that it’s all true.
“Nobody thought we’d do anything,” Regina Culver said.
She had sent her son a text message the night before the game, told him to do whatever he had to do, reminded him of how far both he and Texas Tech had come. She still remembers that first phone call, from coach Chris Beard, when the university hired him in 2016. Never mind that Texas Tech was a football school with little basketball tradition. Beard had a vision. It looked a lot like ...
There came Jarrett, bounding from the court toward the stands, beelining for his parents. He wrapped his mom so tightly her feet left the ground and her red Chuck Taylors dangled in the air. “You did it,” she told him.
They all did. Like Beard, the itinerant hoops lifer who bounced all over the country, working as an assistant for Bob Knight at Texas Tech but also coaching at all levels, even the American Basketball Association, where his team didn’t have a permanent gym. He toiled in Division III, for McMurry University, as recently as 2013, then went to Angelo State, then Little Rock, then UNLV, before he changed his mind and took the Texas Tech gig.
Beard made immediate changes upon his arrival in Lubbock. He asked the administration to increase his staff size, upgrade its video and scouting systems and add a nutritionist. “We knew we wouldn’t get the five-star players,” says Mark Adams, his defensive lieutenant. “We gotta make ’em into five-stars.”
In his first season, he won 16 games. In his second, Beard led the Red Raiders to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history, where they lost to eventual national champion Villanova. But Texas Tech lost six of its top eight scorers, including All-America guard Keenan Evans and his talented backcourt mate Zhaire Smith, who went to the 76ers in the first round of the NBA draft. The Red Raiders entered this season unranked and tabbed to finish seventh in the conference in one preseason poll.
Yet here they were. Upon arrival in California, Beard insisted that he had never enjoyed coaching a team more than this group. Not even the South Carolina Warriors. The Red Raiders won 10 games to start the season and 11 of 13 down the stretch. If they hadn’t stumbled against the worst team in the Big 12, West Virginia, in the conference tournament, they may have entered the NCAAs among the favorites. After that defeat, Beard gave his players stickers to affix to their phones. They read: March 14, 2019, Texas Tech 74, West Virginia 79.
But that loss also overshadowed some critical reasons that the Red Raiders would contend once the madness really started. For one, they had played far better on offense in the final month of the season, as Culver solidified his future NBA lottery status. They also could boast of the best and most efficient defense in college basketball, which would travel, regardless of opponent. Just ask NCAA opponents Buffalo (held without a field goal for 19 straight possessions) and Michigan (held to 16 points in the first half). “Like they were in our huddle,” Wolverines forward Isaiah Livers said.
The Gonzaga affair featured the country’s top D against the country’s top offense, and yet, at halftime the Zags led 37–35 in something closer to a shootout. Forwards Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke had combined for 23 points—or a touchdown more than Michigan had managed in one half.
Then Texas Tech did what Texas Tech has done all season. There was Culver, his shot off for most of the afternoon, scratching out a team-high 19 points. There was forward Tariq Owens, the St. John’s transfer/rim protector, with key blocks in the final minutes. There was Matt Mooney, the South Dakota transfer, scoring and dishing and stealing.
The day before, he recalled when Tech coaches came to visit him last winter, in a snowstorm, the night after a house party at his place in Vermillion, S.D. The kitchen floor was so sticky their shoes squeaked. They settled into an old couch, with a broken back, and made their pitch. Come to Lubbock. Help us win—win now. Other schools told him the Red Raiders didn’t have enough talent. But as the coaches left he turned to his roommates. They all agreed: That’s where he should transfer.
Mooney grew into an All-Big 12 defender, the embodiment of how Tech’s defensive guru, assistant coach Mark Adams, wants his players to develop. Adams harps on details; he’ll even hang statistics above the urinals in the locker room for emphasis. Sometimes the players call him Mr. Negativity behind his back, but they mean it (mostly) endearingly, and they’ll visit him in his office for the two jars always stocked with candy, the trade-off being that he makes them watch film. He also rewards with a chain for the “rebound king,” a “championship” belt for the most deflections and the use of a massage chair in the team meeting room for whoever takes the most charges.
Adams is infamous for his pregame speeches, which often center on animals or boxers (he’s a former pugilist himself). He delivered Owens’s favorite before Texas Tech played Iowa State on March 9. “He told us this story about a mountain lion,” Owens says. “And the mountain lion was fighting a bear. The mountain lion ends up killing the bear and this guy comes up and ends up shooting the mountain lion and taking his bear. And then so the mountain lion ends up stalking his guy back to his cabin and then eating the guy who took his bear.” Whatever works. The Red Raiders won that game.
Owens didn’t need any big speech Saturday. He needed the grad transfers and the future lottery pick and his old buddy, the one with the crisscross career path. When Beard was an assistant under Knight, he often went to the movies late at night with Adams, sharing popcorn, taking a break from hoops. They never expected this. Not in a million years.
It was Gonzaga, the team with more tournament experience, that made the fatal mistakes at the end. Hachimura was blocked twice late while forcing up attempts, the Zags’ shooters went cold and fifth-year senior Josh Perkins reached over the baseline and touched the ball the inbounder was holding, netting a technical foul and sealing Tech’s first trip to the Final Four.
It resulted from Beard’s vision, Adams’s coaching, Mooney’s decision and Culver’s prowess. All that and a thousand other factors. Many jokes were made about how Texas Tech could use some of that defensive emphasis for its football team, which notoriously scores a million points and yields almost as many. “It’s funny you say that because coach [Matt] Wells came in my office last week,” Adams said. “And had some complementary things to say about our defense. And that his defensive coordinator was bragging about our basketball team and defense and he wants us to get together and talk a little X’s and O’s.”
“I’m not so sure Beard and I both wouldn’t be better off coaching football,” Adams continued, laughing.
As the final seconds ticked away, Beard ran down his daughters, hugged them, told them how much he loved them. His players piled atop each other at midcourt. He climbed the ladder last, not long after Culver, and there they were: the boy from Lubbock and the coach from everywhere who had boosted a basketball team at a football school to one place it had never been.
“We aren’t done yet,” Culver said.