Wrapping up this wonderful series, we’re going to take a look at the strong tournament run that set Texas Tech on a collision course with destiny and ultimately changed the national perspective of the Red Raiders.
A back-to-back during the conference tournament proved to take a toll on an injured Keenan Evans. His struggles from the field against a talented West Virginia proved to be too much to overcome for the Red Raiders. Now, as a senior entering the NCAA Tournament, every game had the threat of being his last. Three seed Texas Tech was in the tournament for the first time in Chris Beard’s tenure and their opening game would be played just down the road.
In Dallas’ American Airlines Center, the Red Raiders would meet the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin. Led by the explosive scoring of Shannon Bogues, the Lumberjacks were coming off a conference tournament victory. They also had two talented forwards — Kevon Harris on the wing, and future Red Raider T.J. Holyfield on the block.
From the jump, it was clear Keenan Evans still wasn’t at full strength. He didn’t make a single field goal in the first half, going 0-for-4 from the field. He scored all four of his points from the free-throw line. Despite the shooting struggles, he made it an emphasis to get his teammates involved and dished out three assists. One of them was possibly the most famous assist in school history.
This assist changed the trajectory of the game. Despite the fact that they’d not gain a lead until under four minutes, this play gave the Red Raiders a bolt of energy. Most importantly, it proved to provide rejuvenation for Keenan Evans. He scored 19 points in the second half, making all six of the shots he attempted. As the only Texas Tech player in double figures, his scoring boost was imperative to their success. The Red Raiders outscored the Lumberjacks by 13 points in the second half and walked away with a 70-60 victory.
The first round of the tournament will likely always be the easiest for a high seeded team like Texas Tech. In the Round of 32, they’d meet a talented Flordia Gators team. The Gators finished third in the SEC largely due to their four-headed monster at the guard position. There were the talented ball handlers of Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen. But they also had incredibly talented wings in Egor Koulechov and the sharpshooting Jalen Hudson. If Texas Tech wanted to win this one, they’d likely have to play small and pull their dominant big, Norense Odiase.
Quickly, Chris Beard saw the adjustment and took it. Odiase would go on to only play two minutes in this game, and the three guards/wings in the starting lineup would play over 30 minutes. The Gators came out of the gates ready to play, led by a 10 point half from Koulechov. But their hot start was staved off by the talented trio of Evans, Smith, and Culver. The group scored all but nine of the team’s points in the first half and kept them within one at the break.
Florida came out of halftime looking sharp. That was especially true of Jalen Hudson who quickly scored eight points in the first four minutes and led his team to a five-point victory. But the Red Raiders regained their confidence and began to crawl their way back into this game. They scored nine straight points thanks to five from Evans. That rally gave them an eight-point lead with just under eight minutes left. Jalen Hudson did everything he could to keep his team in it, but Texas Tech kept answering. Keenan Evans hit a three-pointer at the 2:35 mark that would stretch their lead to three points. Unexpectedly, the remainder of the game would be a defensive battle. That Evans three would be the last bucket scored for the next two minutes. Luckily for the Red Raiders, the next basket scored would be a Zhaire Smith dunk that pushed the lead to five with just under 30 seconds left. Despite a 23 point performance by the Gator’s Hudson, their nearly three-minute scoring drought to close out the game closed any chances the had at a win. Texas Tech had won the game 69-66 and would be heading to the Sweet 16.
The Red Raiders would meet the explosive two-seed Purdue Boilers in the Sweet 16. The Boilers had one of the deadliest weapons in all of college basketball - Carsen Edwards. Despite being just a sophomore, Edwards had the third-highest points per game average in the Big 10 at 18.5. A consistent threat from deep, he had also made the conference’s second-most threes while making them at the fourth-highest efficiency. Even with Purdue missing their second-leading scorer Isaac Haas, it would take a team effort to take down the Boilers.
The game started with lots of offense right out of the gates, and then both defenses really settled in. There was nearly six-minute scoring drought from both teams that was ended with a Purdue three-pointer, breaking the tie and giving them the lead. The Red Raiders defense looked sharp, holding Edwards to only five points in the half. An impressive eight-point half from Justin Gray gave a Texas Tech a five-point lead at halftime.
Immediately it was clear that Edwards wasn’t going to let his team go down without a fight. He matched his first-half point total within four minutes. Zhaire Smith responded with five points of his own, extending his team’s lead. Edwards did not slow down his offensive attack as he kept his team in the game. Texas Tech responded with scoring from across the roster thanks to their deep roster. Edwards did everything he could to keep his team in the game, but a 10 point Red Raider lead with under four minutes to go would be too much. Edwards had a remarkable game, scoring 30 points on 55 percent shooting from the field. But with four players in double digits, Texas Tech won the game 78-65.
Now in their first Elite Eight in program history, Texas Tech had a daunting challenge in front of them. The one-seeded Villanova Wildcats were the match-up, and they were easily the best team in college basketball. The team was compromised of five future NBA players. Their incredible amount of talent and great coaching led them to a season of only four losses.
The first few minutes of the first half could not have gone any better for Texas Tech. They opened the game with a 9-1 run in the first four minutes. But Villanova quickly responded, turning their defensive aggression to an incredible level while their offense shot the ball well. Texas Tech would go on to only score 14 more points the entire quarter, ending with a season-worst 23 points in a half.
Every attempt was made for a second-half rally, and it began to work. In fact, a couple of three-pointers brought them back within five points with just over six minutes left. But again, Villanova responded with strong defense and went on a short run to close out the game. Despite outsourcing the Wildcats in the second half, the Red Raider lost by 12 points. Their historic season was now over.
Texas Tech had now come to the conclusion of one of their most remarkable seasons ever. With Keenan Evans admitting he had a broken toe after the Villanova game, the “what ifs” are endless. Despite all the unknowns, the Red Raiders should be more than proud of this incredible season. Only in the second season of the Chris Beard Era, they had made their deepest tournament run ever, losing only to the future National Champions. This season set the tone for the program we’d come to know. Successful, hard-knocking, never-quitting, winning, gritty, and persistence. This season was the beginning of Texas Tech Basketball’s resurgence into the national lights.