Shining Moments Provide Relief For Tarnished Sport

     For nine glorious days, almost all was right with college basketball. Of course, this is 2019, so there is always going to be an “almost”. In this case, Final Four weekend produced allegations that Zion Williamson’s mother received payments from Nike during Zion’s recruitment. But as in almost every instance in the last two weekends of March Madness, college basketball came out on the right side onf things. In this case, since Duke and Zion weren’t around for the Final Four.

     After three rounds of relatively lackluster games, and with almost no Cinderella stories, the Elite Eight and Final Four produced seven thrilling games with drama, controversy and tension, three of the contests being decided in overtime. Given the cloud hanging over the sport, the NCAA couldn’t have hand-picked two better teams to play for the title. Neither was a blue blood, neither had won a title, and neither had a whiff of controversy around them. Virginia is as well-known for the culture of faith around the program as it is for its defense. Tech’s only uber high- level recruit, Jarred Culver, was even possible to corral because he is a home town player from Lubbock.

     The only Final Four participant with a serious scandal stench about them was Auburn, and the basketball part of their story in beating Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, and coach Bruce Pearl’s over sized personality somewhat drowned that out. The only school close to a blue blood around was Michigan State, and their coach Tom Izzo is an almost universally respected and liked man.

    After four scintillating regional finals, it almost seemed too much to ask for the Final Four to produce similar drama, but it may have even exceeded it. By the evenly matched standard of the group of four, Texas Tech produced the “upset”, pulling away to take down Izzo’s Spartans after the unbelievable drama of Virginia’s escape act against Auburn in the first national semifinal.

      The Cavaliers produced stunning scripts in virtually every game, only their second-round win over Oklahoma relatively stress-free. After being bounced by UMBC in the first 1-16 upset in the history of the tournament in 2018, the top-seeded Cavaliers were down 14 to Gardner-Webb in the first round, but shook off a potential repeat nightmare to win going away. They squeaked past Oregon in the regional semifinals, and needed a missed free-throw tip out, and last tenth of a second bucket, to even get to overtime in the regional finals against Purdue, before prevailing to get to the Final Four.

     So naturally they were at it again in the national semifinals, getting a difficult miss-it-or-the-games-over three by Kyle Guy down four to Auburn with six seconds to go, then a missed double dribble call leading to Guy being fouled at the death, needing all three free throws to win. He splashed each of them looking cool as a cucumber, noting later that he was “terrified”.

     Heading into the national title game, you could understand if the casual fan wasn’t jacked up. Neither team is anywhere near a brand in the sport, and with withering defenses their calling card, a 48-45 mud wrestling match seemed to be in the offing. Instead the defenses were still at their best most of the night, but the offenses fought through with great execution and outstanding individual play.

     Virginia looked like, for once, they were not going to have to rely on a Hollywood story line again as they lead by 6-12 points most of the second half, and by eight with under six minutes of play. But Tech refused to capitulate, and we got one more dose of drama. The Red Raiders caught and passed the Wahoo’s, and it seemed like the most unlikely scenario of all would play out, a Red Raiders title.

     Texas Tech isn’t even a redheaded stepchild in their own state, pick your description, as in the pecking order they are behind UT, Texas A and M, Baylor, and TCU at the very least. They are more of a football school, but not really even very good at that. Their last conference title in basketball until this year was back in the Southwest conference, and until Chris Beard arrived, it had been over a decade since they won a tournament game.

     But here they were, ready to use their calling card defense, up three with less than twenty seconds to go. I’m sure Beard is going to have nightmares about the ensuing play, when his players over-helped on driving Ty Jerome, who only could have drawn Virginia within one, and left the game’s leading scorer, DeAndre Hunter, wide open for a tying three. Then Jared Culver spurned a drive to the basket for a contested three on a night when he made none of them, and it was overtime for the first time in eleven years in the championship game.

     The Red Raiders seemed a bit deflated, but hung in during the O.T. until replay caught Davide Moretti’s fingernail deflect a ball out of bounds on a potential game-tying drive with just over a minute to go, and the air went out of their balloon.

     Virginia 85-77, the Cavaliers champions for the very first time.

     We know will go back to an off-season that will begin with a new FBI trial, this one focusing on Nike, after Adidas got the same treatment last year, in a case still not completed by any means. The sleazy underbelly of the sport will make the news as much as the coaching carousel and recruiting coups.

     But as the song says, there sure were a bunch of “Shining Moments” in the last nine days of an, in the end, stunning version of March Madness.