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Opinion: When it mattered most in Final Four, Texas Tech's hometown hero Jarrett Culver came through  2 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

MINNEAPOLIS — Of all the nights for Jarrett Culver to struggle.

Texas Tech in its first Final Four, playing for a spot in the national title game, and the hometown kid who’d carried his team all year couldn’t buy a bucket.

He’d drive inside, and Michigan State would smother him like a blanket. He’d put up a jumper, and it would carom off the rim. Or, worse, whistle past the basket. At halftime, he was a dismal 0-for-6, with more fouls (two) than points (one).

But the message, from coach Chris Beard on down the bench, was the same: Keep shooting. And if Culver couldn’t find his groove, his teammates would find a way to carry him.

“My team trusts me, my coach trusts me and that means a lot to me,” Culver said. “When you’ve got a whole team that trusts you, all the coaching staff trusts you, you keep shooting with confidence.”

So Culver kept shooting. And missing.

“Every shot I shot, it felt pretty good,” he said, laughing. “I thought it was going in, but they just weren’t going in earlier.”

Not that it looked as if it would matter. Matt Mooney caught fire, making just about every shot he took, and Tech’s stingy defense kept Michigan State from making any kind of a run. With nine minutes left, the Red Raiders had a 12-point lead and what surely looked like a spot in the title game.

But then the Spartans started making 3s. And the Red Raiders couldn’t make anything.

Pretty soon, that 12-point lead was down to one.  

“We weren’t, I’d say, nervous, but we knew we had to make plays and get stops,” Culver said.

No, what Texas Tech really needed was for Culver to be the Culver he’s been all season.

Texas Tech is not what anyone would call a basketball hotbed. It is not the preferred spot for McDonald’s All-Americans and blue-chip recruits. Yet Culver, who will be an NBA lottery pick this summer and could have gone pretty much anywhere, chose to stay at home and play for Beard and the Red Raiders.

He is Tech’s leading scorer and rebounder, and no one’s been more reliable. He has reached double figures in all but one game this season, and shoots almost 48 percent from the field. More than that, he’s been transformational, taking Texas Tech to the Elite Eight last year and the Final Four this year.

“I never would have thought Tech would get to this point, growing up in Lubbock,” he said. “Now that I’m here at Tech and being a part of it, it’s so special to me.”

And it was all about to slip away.

After Aaron Henry’s driving layup with 2:54 made it a  one-point game, Culver pulled up for a jumper. Unlike so many others Saturday night, it went in. Beard called a timeout, and the message was what it had been all night.

Keep shooting.

“He carried us the whole season pretty much,” Kyler Edwards said. “We were pretty confident he was going to hit one.”

Culver’s next shot was blocked, but the Spartans missed a 3 and Culver was fouled on another attempt. He made the first of two, and Michigan State grabbed the rebound. But Norense Odiase stripped Xavier Tillman and fed Culver, who pulled up just outside the 3-point line and let fly.

“I practice that shot a lot,” Culver said. “It felt good when it came off my hands. I shot it with confidence and it went in.

“I just thank God it went in.”

He, his whole team and everybody who roots for Texas Tech. The 3-pointer gave the Red Raiders a 58-51 lead with 58 seconds left, and all that was left was the celebrating.

Texas Tech, a team nobody outside Lubbock could have imagined playing for the national title, will do just that Monday night after its 61-51 victory over Michigan State.

“It’s history,” Culver said, a touch of wonder in his voice.

Culver finished with 10 points, barely avoiding his season low. His 3-of-12 shooting was, percentage wise, his worst (.250) of the season.

Even his free throw shooting – he was 3 of 6 from the line – was below his season average of 71 percent.

And yet, there was never any doubt in the Red Raiders’ minds that Culver would come through in this, the most important game in his school and hometown’s history.

“We know what kind of player he is, being there for us all year long,” Brandone Francis said, “so I didn’t have any worries.”

Of all the nights for Culver to struggle. Of all the nights for him to shine.


Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.



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