ANAHEIM, Calif. — After Chris Beard secured a trip to his school’s first Final Four with a thrilling 75-69 win over Gonzaga in the Elite Eight on Saturday, he sprinted across and the court and yelled, “Girls!”
Then, his three daughters — Avery, Ella and Margo – ran toward the Texas Tech head coach and squeezed his neck.
“I just thanked them for believing in me when, you know, a lot of people didn’t,” Beard told ESPN after the game. “Coaching schools you never heard of. They’ve always been by my side.”
He added, “And also my girlfriend, Randi, who’s special. I appreciate this platform. You know, the girls are missing so much school here in this March Madness run. I just want to plea to [their schools and teachers] if you can work with the girls a little bit on their missed classes.”
That scene seemed appropriate for the moments that unfolded months after voters in the Big 12’s preseason poll predicted Texas Tech would finish seventh after the Red Raiders lost three of their top four scorers off an Elite Eight team, including first-round pick Zhaire Smith. Oh, and not to mention a coach who seems to have been here, there and everywhere in his coaching tenure.
But Texas Tech returned to make more history and now a trip to Minneapolis, where it could become the most unlikely spoiler and national champion since Connecticut 20 years ago.
The team’s journey wasn’t neatly stitched together like the paths of the bluebloods they’ll have to plow through to win Texas Tech’s first national title. They didn’t add a recruiting class full of five-star talent. They lost some of the key pieces from a great team. They didn’t have any one-and-dones.
The most intimidating person on their roster is Darryl Dora, a 6-foot-9 graduate assistant who played for the Red Raiders in the early 2000s.
Matt Mooney, a grad transfer from South Dakota who scored 17 points in Saturday’s win over Gonzaga, starred in the one-bid Summit League a year ago. Tariq Owens, a shot-blocking savant at St. John’s last season, transferred to the school in Lubbock, Texas, a year ago. Davide Moretti is standout from Italy.
Jarrett Culver, a Lubbock native, was a three-star recruit who has blossomed into a projected top-10 pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
“Unbelievable,” Culver said after the game. “We’re not supposed to be here, man. It’s unbelievable. It’s for sure a blessing.”
And then there’s Beard.
He’s had 12 basketball jobs, beginning with his stint as a student manager at Texas in the early 1990s, including coaching stops at the Division II level and junior college.
He also coached something called the South Carolina Warriors in something called the American Basketball Association eight years ago. He picked UNLV in 2016 after his Arkansas-Little Rock squad beat Purdue in the NCAA tournament — before changing his mind and returning to Texas Tech, where he’d previously been an assistant for a decade.
With his current group, he’s played some of the best defense we’ve seen in college basketball. The team that Texas Tech held to just 0.97 points per possession on Saturday had possessed the most explosive offense in the game.
This season, they won a slice of the Big 12 championship. They battled Duke at Madison Square Garden. And they’ve lost once — a weird 79-74 outing against West Virginia in the first round of the Big 12 tournament — since Feb. 2.
“A lot has been made about us having the underdog and stuff like this,” Beard said. “They’re kinda disrespecting our guys. Jarrett Culver was the MVP of the Big 12 conference and we won the regular season share with Kansas State. Tariq’s the all-time shot-blocker in the Big East at St. John’s. Matt Mooney is one of the best offensive players in college basketball. We’ve got good players. We got good players. About half of our guys were in the Elite Eight last year and we lost a tough game to Villanova. … I think it’s kinda disrespecting our players. We’ve got good guys and we’ve had a great season to this point.”
That’s the vibe Texas Tech had after the game. Sure, they’ll come to Minneapolis as the outsider, the program without a brand name that matches that of the programs they’ll likely meet in the Twin Cities. But they don’t care. They know they’re real.
And they’ve never cared about anything outside the program.
That’s why they held an offseason retreat in a remote location with limited cell service before the season. There, Beard told the players, returning and new, that they had to finish what they started with last season’s Elite Eight run.
After Owens and Mooney, a pair of key transfers, reached campus, they didn’t go to a movie or a party with the team.
“Mooney didn’t want to go out,” Culver said. “He wanted to go to the gym. That said a lot.”
Now, they’ll all play together for a title, this effective and destructive crew that’s equipped with the best defense in America, a first-round pick and collection of talented players who seem ready for anyone.
Before reporters entered the Texas Tech locker room after the Gonzaga win, the team celebrated and danced to a song called “Minnesota” by Lil Yachty. It was a self-explanatory selection for a program that will take another shot at history in Minneapolis.
Dora, the massive grad assistant, carried towels and other items toward the team bus with the music blasting behind him. Before he disappeared down the hallway, however, he turned and looked at a group of folks huddling nearby.
“Remember,” he said, “we’re not supposed to be here.”
But they are here.
And, it seems, nothing was ever going to stop this ambitious group from reaching its goal.
They’re not here to crash the party.
They’re here to make it their own.