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TRAXLER: Texas Tech's Mooney steals Final Four spotlight in semifinal win

MINNEAPOLIS -- On Friday, Texas Tech's Matt Mooney was getting questions about how he'd stop Michigan State's Cassius Winston, who was the Big Ten's player of the year.

2019-04-07T013810Z_982893440_NOCID_RTRMADP_3_NCAA-BASKETBALL-FINAL-FOUR-SEMIFINALS-MICHIGAN-STATE-VS-TEXAS-TECH.JPG
Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Matt Mooney (13) shoots the ball against Michigan State Spartans guard Cassius Winston (5) during the first half in the semifinals of the 2019 Men's Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. (Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports)

MINNEAPOLIS -- On Friday, Texas Tech’s Matt Mooney was getting questions about how he’d stop Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, who was the Big Ten’s player of the year.

It turns out the question should have been: Who is going to guard Matt Mooney?

Not that the Spartans had much of an answer anyway. With the entire college basketball world watching, Mooney was nothing short of incredible, tying a season-best 22 points in a 61-51 win over favored Michigan State in the NCAA Final Four semifinals. That sets up a national championship game appearance on Monday against Virginia, which will be a meeting of two of the nation’s top three defenses.

Mooney, the much-talked-about graduate transfer from the University of South Dakota, aced nearly every part of Saturday’s challenge against the Spartans. He had 22 points while keeping Winston to 16 points on as many shots from the field.

“A lot of people have helped me get to this point, have helped me along the way. You know, this is -- I'm living the dream right now. I'm so grateful I got another opportunity,” Mooney said when asked about his bouncy career from Air Force to USD to Texas Tech. “I'm so grateful for this coaching staff believing in me, and these guys, my teammates believing in me and welcoming me into this program.”

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Mooney was already one of the biggest stories in the Final Four before Saturday. And then he somehow got even bigger. The 6-foot-3 guard was all over the court, grabbing rebounds and managing the offense from a point-guard role throughout the game. Most importantly, Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said “the basket got big” for Mooney, who had nine points in the first half, with Texas Tech up 23-21 at the break in a grinder of a half.

The large contingent of Red Raider fans was getting rowdy up with TTU up six points before Mooney made his impact. He drilled a 3-pointer and then answered a Winston miss with another, deeper triple to put the Red Raiders up 12 with 11:14 remaining.

“He's obviously very, very talented, but the thing that really impressed me tonight was just his courage, just to be able to make those big plays and want to be in those moments,” Beard said. “I think when Michigan State was focused on (Jarrett) Culver so much, Matt had the courage to step up and take those shots. He's making plays on both ends. I loved his poise tonight.”

Mooney said that one of the Red Raiders’ assistant coaches told him that he would need to take the game over. And that’s what he did. The performance was so good that Red Raider forward Tariq Owens -- who left the game for a period in the second half with an injured ankle -- said he was upset he missed it.

“This is what we came here for, and he had the biggest game of his career tonight on the biggest stage,” Owens said. “This is just what he came here for.”

Culver finally broke through late in the game to help seal the game. Michigan State cut the game to one point with less than 3 minutes left, before Culver scored six straight points, including a game-sealing 3-pointer late in the shot clock with 58 seconds left to put TTU up 57-51.

Mooney said Friday that he appreciated the chance to be more than just a scorer for Texas Tech. But the Red Raiders needed every part of his game Saturday -- including the scoring -- and they’ve got a trip to the national title game Monday to show for it.

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2019-04-07T013802Z_1482574781_NOCID_RTRMADP_3_NCAA-BASKETBALL-FINAL-FOUR-SEMIFINALS-MICHIGAN-STATE-VS-TEXAS-TECH.JPG
Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Matt Mooney (13) shoots the ball against Michigan State Spartans guard Cassius Winston (5) during the first half in the semifinals of the 2019 Men's Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. (Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports)

Related Topics: COLLEGE BASKETBALL
Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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