MINNEAPOLIS — Matt Mooney leaned forward at his locker, his head pointed the same direction as his eyes. He kept apologizing, his voice the quietest of whispers, to his Texas Tech coaches, his teammates and their fans.
That was supposed to be the Red Raiders at the end of the national championship, at the climax of this strange and special season. That was supposed to be him, throwing the ball in the air in glorious celebration, donning the only T-shirt and hat he ever wanted, the gear players get when they win the season’s final game.
Instead, Mooney leaned even more forward at that locker. It looked like he might fall over, his eyes locked in on his sneakers. A television camera zoomed in close. A cameraman approached and flipped on his light. Mooney cleared his throat but didn’t lift his head. More reporters gathered around. He tried to answer all their questions, but his voice failed him. He choked out a few words.
A few feet away, members of the training staff gathered in a side room. Some watched the 2019 “One Shining Moment” montage, the one that ended with Virginia as the winner, the final tally 85–77 in one of the best, most dramatic title games ever played.
The locker room also remained silent as senior center Norense Odiase settled into a chair. He said that coach Chris Beard had told the Red Raiders he was proud of both them and their season, reminded them that they would be challenged throughout their lives, told them he knew how this team, one of his favorites, would respond. It sounded nice but, in some ways, empty. Texas Tech had not come here to lose. “We wanted to do more with it,” Odiase said.
When Odiase made two free throws late in the second half, extending the Red Raiders’ lead to 68–65 with 22 seconds left, he thought to himself, “One more stop and game.” Who wasn’t thinking that, outside of Virginia and its fans? But UVa guard De’Andre Hunter drained a triple and Texas Tech’s NBA-bound guard Jarrett Culver missed a decent but tough look and the game went to overtime and Tech’s season unraveled from presumed triumph to so-close-but-not-enough.
Those who could eat afterward picked at cold chicken in takeout containers. Reporters continued to approach Mooney, asking questions, as his head remained buried in his hands and photographers surreptitiously snapped candids. At one point, guard Brandone Francis, who led the Red Raiders with 17 points on Monday, sat directly in front of Mooney to slow down the stampede.
Francis tried to remind Mooney of this season: the low expectations buried under a pile of victories, the top 10 ranking, the surge through the NCAA tournament. The Red Raiders, he tried to remind Mooney, had a thousand moments.
Just not their One Shining one.
I. The Retreat
This offseason, Beard hired Creighton video coordinator Tim MacAllister and made him Chief of Staff. Then Beard tasked MacAllister with logistics, crisis management and travel planning, among many other duties, the first being to organize a preseason retreat. Beard knew he had lost six of his top eight scorers from the first Elite Eight team in school history. He knew he had eight new players to infuse into his locker room and two grad transfers to slot into his starting lineup. “It felt like the island of misfit toys,” MacAllister says.
Chief MacAllister planned the getaway in three weeks. He wanted somewhere close to Lubbock but far enough to feel isolated, with limited cell phone service and room for 60 people. He found the Circle 6 Ranch in Lenorah, 90 miles south of campus.
Players slept in bunk beds and were paired for private conversations with suggested topics like who had inspired them; their partners reported back to the rest of the team. They sprinted through an obstacle course blindfolded, with one player running into a parked car. They did trust falls and walked on ledges and did log rolls and made a bonfire. Odiase took charge of the team bonding. Same as he would all season.
On the last night, the Red Raiders held an epic karaoke session. Beard crooned an old favorite, “Where Corn Don’t Grow”by Travis Tritt. Odiase paired with athletic trainer Chris Williams, the duo donning do-rags for a rendition of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”. Culver sent his father, the Baptist pastor Hiawatha, clips of the team harmonizing a family favorite, “God’s Got a Blessing (With Your Name On It)”. “That trip, that night, that song,” says Culver’s oldest brother, Trey. “It’s a testimony to this whole season.” And one person, he says: Chris Beard.
II: The Transfer(s)
Beard arrived at the off-campus house that Matt Mooney shared with four other South Dakota students the night after a house party last spring. (Mooney missed the party, naturally, to shoot baskets.) The floor was sticky and the couch was broken, but Beard didn’t care. He desperately needed to add Mooney as a grad transfer, and he had already met with Mooney’s parents that morning in the Chicago suburbs and flown into a snowstorm to make his pitch. “Best salesman I ever met in my life,” says Matt’s mother, Angela, who means that as a compliment.
Mooney took almost as winding a path as Beard to that meeting. He utilized a combination of buses and trains for 90 minutes each way so he could play for Notre Dame Prep in high school; received only one scholarship offer; overcame a broken leg from a bicycle crash and hazing to thrive at the Air Force Academy, where he lamented, “I’m jumping out of helicopters, but I’d rather be in the gym.” He transferred from there to South Dakota, where he scored almost 1,300 points in two seasons, overcame a hip injury and told his coach, Craig Smith, that “defense isn’t my thing.” He also hosted about 40 of the sport’s top coaches. Why? In Mooney, they saw instant scoring that could be injected into their lineups. Beard saw something more: a silky shooter who could become an elite defender, too. Mooney told Smith he “wouldn’t be able to live with myself” if he didn’t get to the NCAA tournament.
He chose Tech. Beard also landed Tariq Owens, a gifted shot-blocker from St. John’s who protected the rim as if assigned to basket security detail. Both went straight into the starting five, augmenting the hometown hero Culver, Odiase and Davide Moretti, an Italian guard, the son of a prominent coach and the nation’s best free-throw shooter.
III: The Surprise
The Texas Tech team picked to finish seventh in one Big 12 preseason poll didn’t lose until Dec. 20, and only then to Duke. The Red Raiders won nine games before that.
Beard befriended everyone in Lubbock, even former football coach Kliff Kingsbury, whom the basketball coach consoled after tough losses. “He carried himself like anything was possible,” Kingsbury says. “From the first day, you could sense that.”
Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt learned just how deeply Beard believed when the Red Raiders fell to eventual national champion Villanova in last season’s Elite Eight. Beard found Hocutt in the locker room, and he talked excitedly, jabbing his finger and at one point bumping shoulders. “Don’t think for a second that this is going to define who we are,” Beard said.
At the retreat, and over the summer, Beard expressed similar sentiments. He often told his players they were capable of “playing on Monday night”—meaning in the national title game. He predicted success on his Fireside Chats, where topics ranged from his favorite fast food (duh) to his favorite rapper (Notorious B.I.G.) to his, um, back tattoo (his daughters’ names and the word “loyalty”).
Beard had players affix stickers to their phones that read CONSISTENCY. He also asked them to make sacrifices, same as at the ranch. Some—all millennials!—gave up their phones the night before games, on game days or for road trips. Others forsook Netflix or fried food. Beard went no beer, no candy, no ice cream, no cake. He laments he hasn’t had any Pop-Tarts since October.
Sometimes, Pat Knight relayed to his father all of Beard’s success. Beard had spent 10 seasons with the Knights as a Texas Tech assistant. “Well, Jesus Christ, he should be good,” Bob Knight would respond. “I taught him everything I know.”
“How much do I love Chris?” Pat asks. “I’m rooting for the school that fired me to win it.”
IV: The Meeting
On Feb. 2, the Red Raiders stumbled badly, blown out by Kansas on the road, 79–63. As Odiase watched the final minutes, the senior center saw a team lacking everything it supposedly majored in: focus, discipline, attention to detail.
Odiase sent a group text to all his teammates the next day. He wanted them to meet at the house he shared with three players and Mooney’s older brother Dan after the Super Bowl. The game ended, the Patriots won, and the players asked Dan to clear out. Then Odiase, Mooney, Owens and Francis took turns speaking. They needed to play like a team capable of making a deep run, to embrace the moment, rather than shrink from it.
“Norense is our emotional center,” says Mark Adams, the assistant coach and defensive guru. “We wouldn’t be playing still without him.”
V: The Run
Texas Tech won the rest of its regular season games following the meeting, even avenging its loss to Kansas with a 29-point home bludgeoning of the Jayhawks. The Red Raiders forged their run through a defense their football counterparts came to envy, a unit molded by Adams, who used to watch movies late at night with Beard when both worked in Lubbock but at different schools. (Beard admits that when the two saw Sex and the City they decided not to sit together, given the optics.)
Beard liked how Adams’s brain worked, how he studied film until sunrise, how his pregame speeches centered on boxers or animals—one involved a tiger stalking a hunter who had stolen his elephant—and how he coaxed players to buy into the less-sexy half of basketball. Adams plied players with candy in exchange for extra film sessions and created a Charge Chair, a Championship Belt for deflections and a Rebound Chain.
The core of his philosophy remained simple: deny the ball in the middle of the court. Adams would assign Culver to frustrate top scorers, ask Owens to roam around the rim and task Mooney with his “free safety” position to disrupt passing lanes, keep his hands active and never stop moving his feet. (Adams calls that pulsing, meaning, Mooney says, he invents defensive tactics and words.) The Red Raiders swallow open paths to the hoop, challenge all passes, close out on shooters and generally swarm like angry gnats. They do all this so well that Adams says the new football coach, Matt Wells, stopped by his office recently, praised his defense and asked to “discuss Xs and Os” this offseason.
The Red Raiders ranked first in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. They also held opponents to a 36.9 shooting percentage (second nationally) and 59.0 points per game (third). “I’ve never seen a basketball team play defense like that,” Kingsbury says.
Culver completed his lottery transformation, averaging 18.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists, while earning Big 12 Player of the Year honors. He was snubbed as a Naismith Award semifinalist, but that hardly mattered. In fact, it was typical Tech: understated and underrated.
And that defense? No one typified the plan, the development, or the ethos more than Mooney. The player who had told his previous coach that stifling D wasn’t his thing made the all-conference defensive team. “He made up his mind he wanted to be a defensive player,” Adams says. “He’s everything that we’re about.”
VI: The Shocker
The run ended March 14, in the worst way possible, with a first-round stumble in the conference tournament to the worst team in the Big 12. That would be West Virginia, a squad that didn’t beat Tech so much as it made everyone except the Red Raiders question their true contender status. MacAllister, the Chief of Staff, thinks the stretch at the end of the season had taken an emotional toll.
Beard wanted his players to find motivation in that loss and move on as quickly as possible. So he gave them new cell phone stickers that showcased the date of the West Virginia defeat and the final score. Then he gathered his team outside an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Kansas City, where before the Red Raiders watched Captain Marvel they burned the box score from the Mountaineers game in a metal trash can in the parking lot. “Had it not been for that loss,” MacAllister says, “I don’t know that we’re in the Final Four.”
VII: The Tournament
Tech became Tech again once the tournament tipped off. Culver showcased his varied game, notching 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in the opening win over Northern Kentucky.
The Red Raiders held Buffalo, owner of the nation’s fifth-best offense, to 19-straight possessions without a field goal. Texas Tech limited Michigan to 16 points in the entire first half, then bottled up Gonzaga, the nation’s top scoring team, to reach the first Final Four in program history.
Throughout March, Beard showed his team clips from the 30 for 30 doc Survive and Advance, which chronicles NC State’s championship run in 1983. Beard also presented clips of the Connecticut team that won the 2011 title behind one star (Kemba Walker), a strong rotation and stout defense. Sound familiar?
Beard continued to remind reporters that his team wasn’t some huge underdog. Tech had spent much of the season in the top 10, after the Elite Eight run, and boasted the most talented player remaining in the Final Four.
Culver found his parents in the stands after the Gonzaga victory, leaned into a group hug and shouted, “I’m not supposed to be here!” None of them were. Not the grad transfers. Not the guard from Italy. Not Francis, whose friend, the rapper Nipsey Hussle, watched Tech win in Anaheim but was murdered the next week. Not Odiase, who lost two cousins in a car accident before the tournament started.
And certainly not Beard. The coach who loves Whataburger had trended on Twitter and won AP national coach of the year honors, with his team clapping from the front row. He still wore the same two rumpled suits he owns throughout the season, still never met a hotel buffet he didn’t ravage. It’s just that now blueblood programs like UCLA sounded interested in hiring him.
In Minneapolis, Beard said the same things he used to mock. It was surreal, to be playing on the final weekend, even as he dropped references to Grandy’s, the comfort food chain, made Tech’s mantra to “smell the roses” and explained his team’s theme song: “Old Town Road”, by Lil Nas X.
VIII: The Speech
The day before the national semifinal, Odiase was “pissed off.” Beard had taken his players out for frozen yogurt, and Texas Tech fans they bumped into en route were delirious. To Odiase, they seemed a little too happy-to-be-here. He didn’t want to celebrate, or eat fro-yo. The Red Raiders had two games to win.
Upon returning to the team hotel, Odiase addressed the group. The address he gave, assistant Brian Burg says, “was the best speech I’ve heard in 15 years of coaching.”
“I wish I had recorded it,” Adams says.
It was Odiase who had told his teammates after the Duke loss that the way they played was unacceptable; Odiase who led the retreat; Odiase who called the players-only meeting after the Kansas loss. Now, he stood before his teammates and reminded them why they were here, not to play in the Final Four but to secure their legacy, their rings and their highlight montage.
IX: The Speech II
The next morning, with the game against Michigan State hours away, former Red Raiders quarterback and current NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes addressed the team. His kept the speech short, reminding the players how many had picked against them and telling them to “go out there and take it.”
Mahomes told SI that he picked Tech to win the tournament and then filled the rest of the bracket in backwards. He had played pickup hoops against the basketball team from 2014 to ’16 while in school, throwing no-look passes on the basketball court, too. He knew all about Beard and his background, which he had researched. He knew Culver, because he was friends with Trey. And he knew Odiase, one of his best and tallest friends. “National champions,” Mahomes predicted.
With the MVP in the stands, Tech put Michigan State in an offensive coma. Culver did not shoot well—he missed all six first-half attempts—but he made an impact on defense, drawing attention from other scorers and downing crucial shots late. He finished with 10 points. Head and ankle injuries limited Owens to 22 minutes, but there came Mooney, the transfer, with 22 points that Tech desperately needed.
Trey Culver wore one of the two national championship rings he won as an indoor high jumper at Texas Tech. He didn’t need to say anything; it showed Jarrett what was possible, what was now tantalizingly close. Mahomes told SI that Beard “was one of the best if not the best coach in the country” and “I would give him everything he wants to stay.” Hocutt, the AD, concurred.
Beard, meanwhile, couldn’t resist continuing to correct the narrative at his press conference on Sunday. He reminded the assembled reporters that Texas Tech’s offense had been pretty good over the last month and half. As with everything else Red Raiders, this wasn’t just about his itinerant journey or landing Mooney or Culver blossoming into a star. It was the totality of all these events—the hardships overcome, the dots that connected, the Whataburgers eaten and buffets laid waste to—coalescing into a most unlikely championship run.
X: The End
Hours before tip-off, Mooney’s mom sat in a local hotel and raved about her son, the calm he radiated, and Tech’s magical season, now one victory from completion. Beard had told her that Matt had epitomized courage in the victory over Michigan State. “It’s the perfect ending already,” she said. “But we’re going to win.”
In many ways, Tech turned in a vintage performance on Monday night. Owens arrived at the arena wearing a walking boot on his right foot, then grabbed five rebounds, slammed an early dunk and blocked a shot anyway. Culver played lockdown defense and scored crucial baskets late. Francis took over the scoring when Culver and Mooney slumped in the first half. So many more dots connected that the Red Raiders stood 22 seconds from winning the whole damn thing. Instead, Virginia did. The Cavaliers made so many big shots, dominated overtime and wore down Texas Tech the way that Texas Tech wore down foes all season.
After his press conference, Beard stalked into the locker room, his face twisted into a grimace. Owens limped to the back to wrap Odiase in a bear hug.
Hocutt, the athletic director, came in last. He was asked if Beard had said anything similar to last season’s this-will-not-define-us screed. He shook his head. “This one hurts,” Hocutt said. Then he repeated that sentiment. Twice.
“We’re absolutely going to give him all the resources to get back here,” Hocutt told SI, turning defiant, then relenting. “It’s not easy,” he said, head shaking, then turning defiant once more. The foundation, for Tech to routinely make the tournament, to become a basketball power, had been laid. He knew that much.
“We’ll be back,” he said, looking around the locker room, and after last season and this season, after all the moments but not the One Shining one, it seemed less-than-smart to doubt him.