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Texas Tech’s Slow, Steady, and Suffocating Defense Stymies No. 1 Seed Gonzaga

The Red Raiders rode timely 3-point shooting and overwhelming pressure to reach their first Final Four. For the Bulldogs, it’s another disappointing end to an otherwise promising season.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - West Regional - Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

When the final buzzer sounded, Texas Tech’s players swarmed each other on the floor of the Honda Center. They put on a defensive clinic in their unlikely upset of no. 1 seed Gonzaga, 75-69, to reach the program’s first Final Four in school history. The highly anticipated matchup between the Zags, the best offense in the country, and the Red Raiders, the top-ranked defense, did not disappoint.

The Bulldogs throttled Florida State—another top-10 defense with jaw-dropping athleticism and admirable scoring prowess—in the Sweet 16, but struggled mightily with Tech’s constant pressure. Gonzaga set the tempo in the opening period, but left the half with only a two-point lead. And once the Red Raiders established control in the second frame and slowed the pace down to their preferred glacial speed, the Bulldogs were unable to reassert their influence.

The Zags found success in the post, led by potential NBA lottery selections Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, who combined for 40 points and 18 rebounds. But they were left vulnerable by turnovers and a poor shooting night from their typically hot-shooting backcourt. Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr.—who entered the game shooting 36 and 38 percent from beyond the arc, respectively—combined to go just 6-for-18 from deep, and struggled to keep pace with their Texas Tech counterparts. Meanwhile, the Red Raiders forced 16 turnovers—five more than Gonzaga’s season average—and made 39 percent of their attempts from deep. Despite those discrepancies, Gonzaga remained within striking distance with 12 seconds remaining. Trailing 71-69, Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins was called for a technical foul when he reached over the endline and made contact with Matt Mooney in an attempt to disrupt the inbounds pass. Texas Tech’s Davide Moretti sank both free throws to stretch the lead to four, and after being fouled on the ensuing play, Jarrett Culver hit two more to widen the lead to six to seal the Red Raiders’ win.

Culver, Tech’s do-everything guard, has been a revelation this season. The prospective lottery pick is long and a respectable threat from deep, and he elicits comparisons to Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton. But his versatility on the defensive end gives the Raiders flexibility, and on Saturday, it allowed them to run in transition. Culver had three steals and despite shooting only 5-of-18 from the field, still finished with a team-high 19 points.

“We want to be the best defensive team in the country,” Culver told CBS’s Dana Jacobson after the game.

Coming into the day, Texas Tech boasted the no. 1 ranked defense in the country per KenPom. The Red Raiders often get compared to Virginia, and for good reason. They play on the slower side offensively, limiting opponents’ possessions, and then smother their foes with their hyper-athletic wing players to force more steals and block more shots than almost any other team in the sport.

Last season’s team, led by no. 16 pick Zhaire Smith, was the first team in program history to reach the Elite Eight. That squad was similarly skilled defensively and lost to eventual champion Villanova. But as special as Smith was in Lubbock, Culver has been even better this season, and grades as the best player in the country through Saturday’s game, per KenPom. The Raiders weren’t expected to make the Final Four, but they can’t be counted out as a title threat. In December, Tech played Zion Williamson and Duke in Madison Square Garden, and led the Blue Devils with under seven minutes remaining before falling, 69-58. On Saturday, the Red Raiders dispatched the only team to beat the Blue Devils this season at full strength.

For Gonzaga, the loss represents another disappointing finish to an otherwise promising season. Two decades after their first trip to the Elite Eight, and two years after nearly cutting down the nets, the Bulldogs seemed poised to finally summit the sport’s hierarchy. In Clarke and Hachimura, head coach Mark Few had two of the most talented big men in the country anchoring the most efficient offense in college basketball. Few teams shot better than Gonzaga from beyond the arc this year, and none were as efficient inside of it. But with their season on the line, the Bulldogs couldn’t keep the magic going.

Even with Clarke and Hachimura’s likely departures, and Perkins’s graduation, Gonzaga should be well-equipped to be among the best teams in the nation next season. The Bulldogs’ incoming recruiting class is one of the best in school history, ranking fifth nationally per 247Sports, and features three players—Drew Timme, Anton Watson, and Pavel Zakharov—who grade among the top five newcomers ever to play for the program. Gonzaga is still waiting to break through with a national championship. In time, they might finally cut down the nets. But for now, glory rests on Jarrett Culver’s shoulders.