DOUGHERTY: Virginia meets Texas Tech in the National Championship

Cavaliers, Red Raiders both looking for their first ever men’s basketball national title

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Junior guard Kyle Guy's ability to make threes could prove to be crucial given Texas Tech's stingy interior defense.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

A wild three weeks of basketball and an unforgettable season come to an end for Virginia Monday night. For the first time in school history, the Cavaliers get the chance to finish on top.

Virginia (34-3, 16-2 ACC) takes on Texas Tech (31-6, 14-4 Big 12) in the long-awaited National Championship game.   

Both teams come into Monday’s showdown battle-tested after gritty NCAA Tournament wins, but for Virginia especially, it has been nothing short of an emotional explosion. The No. 1 seed Cavaliers survived a blistering comeback bid from Auburn in the Final Four Saturday, needing three massive free throws from junior guard Kyle Guy to advance. 

"You guys are going to ask me a lot of questions, and I'm not going to have the perfect words,” Guy said of the career-defining moment. “But this and getting engaged are easily the two best moments of my life, and I'm just so happy right now,” 

With the Tigers keeping Guy at bay on the perimeter for most of the night, junior guard Ty Jerome stepped up. In a huge performance, Jerome put up 21 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Jerome is likely to see his NBA Draft stock improve after his play in the NCAA Tournament, but he remains laser-focused on bringing a title back to Charlottesville.

“To still be playing at this point in the season on the stage you dreamed of as a little kid is an unreal feeling and we’re going to do everything we can to finish the job,” Jerome said. 

Looking for his first ever national title, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett has gotten his team through massive adversity over the past few weeks to put them in position to cut down the nets. Standing in his way is a suffocating Texas Tech team led by another coach looking for his first title in Chris Beard.

The No. 3 seed Red Raiders came into Minneapolis with the best defense in the nation according to KenPom, following Virginia’s defensive footprint. Beard has coached his team through upset wins over title contenders Gonzaga and Michigan State in the last two rounds, most recently muscling a 61-51 victory over the Spartans Saturday.

Texas Tech runs through sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, an elite two-way player who is a likely top-10 pick in the NBA Draft this year. Hailing from the same town as Texas Tech — Lubbock, Texas — Culver averages 18.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, showing great versatility as a scorer. 

Bennett will likely task sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter, ACC Defensive Player of the Year, with shutting down Culver. Standing two inches taller than the 6-foot-5 Culver, Hunter can use his length to keep him at bay and out of the driving lanes where he thrives. Offensively, Hunter will have to assert himself and take care of the ball against Culver’s tenacious defense to win a potentially decisive matchup. 

Joining Culver in the backcourt are two very skilled ball-handlers in sophomore guard Davide Moretti and senior transfer guard Matt Mooney. Both average more than 11 points per game and bring different dimensions to the offense, with Moretti shooting a blistering 45.8 percent from three and Mooney averaging more than three assists per game.

Mooney will be a particularly key player as he comes into the game red hot. The South Dakota transfer scored 17 points against Gonzaga before tying his season high with 22 points against Michigan State, picking up the team as Culver struggled. Freshman guard Kihei Clark figures to play a major role in frustrating him after playing solid defense on Auburn junior guard Jared Harper Saturday, limiting him to only four field goals. 

Senior forward Tariq Owens and senior center Norense Odiase comprise the anchor of the Red Raiders’ defense. They lead all rotation players in defensive plus-minus and locked down Michigan State’s elite frontcourt presence Saturday, with Owens registering three blocks. Owens is the team’s second best rebounder and provides most of their inside scoring but may be hampered by an ankle injury that put him in a precautionary walking boot Saturday.

This game has the looks of a defensive slugfest. Points are going to be hard to come by for both teams as each tries to figure out how to solve the other’s scheme. While Texas Tech’s offensive efficiency isn’t close to as good as Virginia’s on paper — ranking only 28th to Virginia’s third — the Red Raiders haven’t always needed high-volume scoring to complement their historically great defense. 

"I think when you play hard defense, you understand the value of offensively how mentally tough you have to be and how sound you have to be,” Bennett said when asked about his opponent’s defensive prowess.

The national title could come down to which team can hit more shots against the other, though neither is likely to shoot exceptionally. Both teams rank in the top 10 in defensive three-point percentage in the country. With each team having an elite rim protector inside — Owens for Texas Tech and junior forward Mamadi Diakite for Virginia — both teams are likely going to be frustrated inside and attempt to win the game with three-point marksmanship.

Guy and Jerome will likely be firing away for the Cavaliers, trading blows with Mooney and Moretti. If Hunter and Clark can heat up from deep to complement them, Virginia has a great shot at cutting down the nets. If Culver finds success inside to complement his backcourt mates, all signs point to the Red Raiders coming out on top.

The game won’t be the high-flying scoring affair many college basketball fans have come to enjoy in the NCAA Tournament but rather an opportunity to witness two defensive brands of basketball on the game’s biggest stage.

"We are in for a battle, and we are excited,” Guy said.

The excitement doesn’t end with the team. Scenes of students and fans flooding The Corner and 14th Street after Saturday’s victory exemplify the passion Virginia fans have for their Cavaliers, and a game-viewing party at John Paul Jones Arena Monday night is likely to have the same electric feel.

After last year’s gut-wrenching loss to No. 16 seed UMBC in the opening round of the tournament, the Cavaliers are ready for their historic comeback story to come full circle. 

“I’m just so happy we can bring joy to U.Va., especially after last year,” Jerome said. “These fans and students who have stayed true to supporting us deserve every bit of this.” 

Virginia’s ascension from last year’s rock bottom can reach its ultimate peak with a win over Texas Tech Monday night. Tip-off from Minneapolis is scheduled for 9:20 p.m. on CBS.

Alec Dougherty is a Sports Columnist and was a Sports Editor for the 129th term of The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at sports@cavalierdaily.com.

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